Spirited Tuba Vamps, Slyly Shy Guitar
London’s Burn, Michigan’s Shells
Sons of Kemet
The instrumentation on the new, debut album Burn from the London jazz quartet Sons of Kemet may raise a few eyebrows, featuring a tuba, a reedist and two drummers, playing a peculiar fusion that brings to mind music from west Africa, Jamaica and eastern Europe. Saxophonist and clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings, who was raised in Barbados, is the backbone of the group, serving as composer and drawing from backgrounds in both classical and Jamaican music worlds before making his name in jazz spheres. While tubas are a mainstay of brass bands, perhaps they are assumed to not have the elegance or dexterity required in the jazz realm, but tuba player Oren Marshall makes a valiant case for his instrument, handling the low registers where a double bass might normally be and adding interesting flavors and tonal variations. This writer is a big fan of the “different drummer in each ear” recording method, heard on such recordings as Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, and it’s used on Burn to great effect; drummers Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford (of Polar Bear) play in unison yet asymmetrically, tickling the listeners’ ears. They’re seemingly tethered together like those knife-fighters in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video, cooperating and working together to keep time, yet channeling their percussive aggression.
“Inner Babylon” is a high point, evoking Afro-beat energy and a Caribbean dark power, marked with spine-tingling, skeletal, bone-rattling beats with swift clicks and clacks; “The Godfather,” a tribute to Ethio-jazz figure Mulatu Astatke, is an unusual mix, with klezmer scales on clarinet and electronic bass bloops. Strangely, Hutchings’s refined playing seems like the oddball among the fury, but it works perfectly on the swampy “Song for Galeano” with floating, mysterious melodies. The closing, sedate and puzzling “Rivers of Babylon,” a cover of the reggae song by The Melodians, is like a woozy walk at 3 a.m., with didgeridoo-like tuba blowing and tom-centered drums. Burn is an album with spirited vamps alternating with more pensive pieces that serve as tributes to poets and writers; this flip-flopping between ferocious, fiery numbers and more smoldering, wandering pieces sometimes breaks up the momentum. Still, it’s an album with good ideas and great promise for an innovative ensemble.
On paper, the new cassette Other Clouds from the Michigan one-woman band Shells sounds like a trifle, mostly featuring nothing more than an electric guitar steadily weaving simple chords and patterns that most novice players could manage. Demanding musicianship is not what it’s about; it’s a small album by design, tapping into longing, slightly melancholic emotion rather than rationality. Its simplicity is shyly sly; it doesn’t take a stranglehold on the listener’s attention, and its personality is mostly unassuming. Its distribution method could have been leaving copies of the cassette on the ground in a forest; nearby is an abandoned, unheated shed with an oil lamp and portable tape player to serve as the optimal listening environment. However, the seemingly breezy casualness really embodies the mood, with light gray tones and a lo-fidelity ambience. Like furniture that has been artificially distressed in order to show more character through its scars, the slightly murky pointedly non-professional home recording adds to the proceedings.
The woman behind Shells is Shelley Salant, also in the punk band Tyvek and the pop bands Saturday Looks Good to Me and Swimsuit, and Other Clouds is a companion piece to her vinyl album In a Cloud, also released this year. In certain ways, Other Clouds is the more engaging and enchanting release, employing a hazy tape collage method with mere hints of dub and a few intentional analog glitches. Its atmosphere is key, in a way similar to the less noisy, vocal-free moments of Grouper; its unabashedly simple arrangements and wistful attitude are also somewhat reminiscent of Tracey Thorn’s A Distant Shore or her work with the Marine Girls in the early ’80s. So, while it’s a small album with small moments, the shadowy, obscure and gentle sound space that’s invoked provides resonance more than one might expect.