In his new book Retromania, music writer Simon Reynolds believes that we are at a tipping point of pop culture regurgitation, where originality is hindered. The “innovation versus imitation” battle is nothing new, though—just recently, for example, I revisited a Down Beat interview with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis from 1987, where he confronts the charge that he’s “muddling through a swamp of sentimental nostalgia” instead of being an innovator.
It’s clear that this is a subject pondered by Chicago clarinetist James Falzone, who was approached to perform a tribute to swing bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman in 2009, on his 100-year birth anniversary. Falzone agreed to do it—and the album by his band Klang, Other Doors, is one of the results—but refused to be mired in the past; this is neither a conventional homage nor an update of Goodman’s work. In the CD’s liner notes, Falzone says, “The greatest thing I can do to pay respect to a jazz musician of the past is to be a jazz musician of the present.”
The Klang quartet is tight and focused, with Falzone surrounded by expert players Jason Roebke on bass, swiftly-rising-star vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, and Vandermark Five drummer Tim Daisy. Those expecting bombastic big band numbers on Other Doors won’t get them—no flashy Gene Krupa-style drumming, no huge brass blasts. However, spirited moments, such as the rendition of “Stompin’ at the Savoy” with guest trombone solo from Jeb Bishop, are plentiful. These are balanced with more pensive numbers with hazy and complicated moods, and one highlight is Falzone’s composition “Goodman’s Paradox,” which has chaotic, free moments built into the structure, breaking away from tradition. Other Doors is not an album of blind reverence but one that takes inspiration and provides challenges; it’s important to study the past, but it’s even more important to not repeat it.
If you are like this writer, then you have some kind of mental egg timer that goes off about six minutes into a long song, when you realize that the song hasn’t ended yet. Then, your next thought is, “This better be worth it.” Composer and musician Rhys Chatham seems to be keenly aware of internal human clocks, creating often minimalist pieces that can mark time with carefully chosen milestones. This writer had an “egg timer” moment, listening to Chatham’s 18-minute track “Crossing the Sword Bridge of the Abyss” from Outdoor Spell, and soon after that six-minute mark, as if on cue, to purposefully stimulate the listener, it erupts with attention-grabbing, feverish, high-pitched trumpet squealing.
Lately, Chatham is best known for his huge electric guitar ensembles (various configurations use between—no joke—100 and 400 guitarists) that marry punk rock with minimalist classical music. Lesser known is his trumpet work, like that heard on Outdoor Spell, which at times seems even more daring and audacious than his guitar work. It may seem odd to call a piece that consists largely of the sound of blowing raspberries to be “daring,” but that applies to the aforementioned track, which is thickly layered and both ridiculous and formidable. It doesn’t seem to be Chatham’s intent to demonstrate any apparent conventional proficiency; instead, he wrenches out as many odd bleats, splats, and squeals as possible before allowing sustained tones to dominate. In addition to long trumpet notes, the mesmerizing title track uses Chatham’s wordless vocals, which have a somewhat didgeridoo-quality to them. “Corn Maiden’s Rite” is strangely compelling, sounding like a discordant beehive with beats from a hand-struck cajón, and the 12-minute free improv number “The Magician” combines Chatham’s bleats, which gradually become more manipulated as the song progresses, with additional musicians on electric guitar and drums acting scattered-brained, closing an album that is simultaneously maddening, absurd, and awe-inspiring.