Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

Greetings, and welcome to Blabber n' Smoke, which is my attempt to build a nice little home for jazz within the otherwise rocking confines of 3IG. Each (optimistically) regular column will gather together reviews of several new releases, maintaining the usual 11-scale review meter.

In honor of the recent holidays, a tribute to the cornucopia of noise pouring forth from the bell of Nate Wooley. Two recent discs are reviewed below, as well as a very different one by guitarist Dominic Frasca. Give thanks. Or at least a listen.

On a recent live recording, trumpeter Nate Wooley introduces his final number by promising a "nice little melody embedded in the typical Nate Wooley crap." That "crap" is the menagerie of squeals, blurts, rasps, and grunts Wooley routinely squeezes out of his horn. But on his latest solo CD, Wrong Shape to be a Story Teller (Creative Sources), there are no nice little melodies to be found. Instead, the single, 51-minute track almost belligerently avoids anything identifiably "musical." Wooley approaches the trumpet as a sound-making machine and composition as the creation of an environment, with equal emphasis on silences and textures. Raised in a Finnish-American fishing village in Oregon, Wooley plays music that maintains the stillness, jarring quirks and jagged edges that characterize the cinema of his Scandinavian forebears. The disc opens with a series of sustained squeals that sound like a tea kettle coming to boil and rapidly losing its patience as it goes untended for several minutes. Finally cut off by an abrupt burst of noise, there is left only a pitiful-sounding wail, a death squall in a windy, lonely forest continually interrupted by abrupt exhalations, a killer impatient of his victim's last throes. A bed of white noise occasionally builds to… nothing, really, a broadcast breaking through with nothing more to say than the surrounding static. Percussive blurts, a rhythmless drummer, frenzied and gasping for air. More silence, broken by only occasional, single beats of that detuned drum at regular intervals, the final heartbeats of a dying man, or his last desperate attempts to communicate, albeit through an instrument rather than words. Then, nothing. And a sudden, jarring stumble. Long drone, the sound of insistent air through long-abandoned machinery, conjuring images of last-known-photos and roads never traveled — for a very good reason. This goes on endlessly, buzzing like a false alarm that can't be shut off. Then, sudden wavering, droning feedback, a test pattern losing its balance. This drops out and leaves behind a high-pitched, unnerving sound, off in the distance but worrying nonetheless. A Lynchian soundscape, gleaming and sharp as the blade of a knife hiding behind a door. And so on, one scene after another presented to the ear with no regard for pleasantries. Remarkably few modern trumpeters manage to escape the looming shadow of Miles Davis and find their own voice, but while Wooley is nowhere near as taciturn a personality, his extended silences make even Miles look like a gregarious blabbermouth. Between the short eruptions of noise and aggressive howls, there are sometimes minutes-long gaps, where faint background noise — coughs, shuffling movements, traffic ambience — creates a Cagean absence, a physical sense of place and a tangible peek into the trumpeter's thought process, as we sit uncomfortably eavesdropping on real-time contemplation before he resumes and assaults our ears once again. {8.5}

Wooley's trio Blue Collar places his mutated blowing in a group context, with trombonist Steve Swell and percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, both equally willing to use their axes in ways for which they were not intended. Their second CD, Lovely Hazel (Public Eyesore), is far less minimalist than Wooley's solo works, if only because there are two other performers filling in the gaps when he pauses. Compared to most sane people's definition of music, this is still willfully obscurantist, aggressively atonal music, but relative to the lowercase world in which Blue Collar resides, this is boisterous enough to sound like fucking P-Funk. 9 tracks, primarily residing in the 6- to 8-minute range, each named by some obscure numbering system that ensures that abstraction rules the day. Titles would only implant ideas in the listener's mind, after all, and the idea here is the exploration of pure sound. But by the second track, they have allowed their instruments, at least sometimes, to sound like what they are. All three are equal partners in building from tiny points of skronk and scrape into multi-faceted aural sculptures; the conversations often work best when all three chatter at once. There is an almost gleeful compatibility of sound at these times, and if Blue Collar can't carry a tune, they sure as hell can sing. {9}

Another one-man sound machine, Dominic Frasca, dwells at the other end of the minimalist spectrum. Frasca's new CD, Deviations (Canteloupe Music), showcases the range of sound the guitarist can coax from his instruments, a six- and a ten-string axe. The liner notes boast that all of the music was performed in real time with no overdubs or loops, and while that is impressive given the layers of sound sometimes present, this is not just masturbatory technique. Frasca deals largely with repeating, continually developing figures, which shift and glide against one another, ebbing and flowing like tides of sound. His techniques most resemble those of composers like Steve Reich, whose "Electric Guitar Phase" Frasca has performed and, judging by this CD, assimilated. While playing his instrument more traditionally than does Wooley, Frasca makes use of the opportunities provided by the entire structure of the guitar, realizing its potential as a percussion tool in order to accompany himself. The centerpiece of the album is the 23-minute title track, a constantly evolving piece full of insistent motifs that repeat, shift and develop, reexamining and altering themselves, giving up on one idea, returning to an earlier one, which then changes, only to abruptly switch back to the first. It's a tour de force, certainly, but more importantly for those bored to tears by empty displays of virtuosity, it is the sound of agitated creation, a buzzing thought process ignited by the spark of inspiration. {8}