From Guts to Complex Wine
Spooky free improv, entrancing beats suit the season
John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, John Tilbury
Movies that are terrifying or tense, in the horror or suspense genres, can often find wide audiences, but music that strives to invoke the same effects in people is often relegated to the outer reaches. So, the question is, why is that? Perhaps it is a matter of attention. When people view a movie, they generally give it their undivided attention, particularly if viewed at a theater.
However, when listening to music, people allow it to slip into the background, letting it start their day on the morning commute or gently push them along when doing an exercise workout. Here’s another question: when is the last time you played an album and just sat there, only listening to it and doing nothing else?
The new spooky, abstract album Exta (which is the Latin word for “entrails,” a photograph of which graces the album cover) from saxophonist John Butcher, synthesizer player Thomas Lehn and pianist John Tilbury, is deserving of undivided attention, and perhaps it is appropriate to write about it in cinematic terms, since it evokes that special kind of refined dread experienced in certain Stanley Kubrick films. For example, one of the album’s centerpieces, the 19-minute long “Cor,” begins with sparse piano notes that sound almost desperate, from Tilbury, the London improviser who’s known as a member of the long-running group AMM. Butcher adds a thin layer of faint blowing, before Lehn adds to the uneasiness with high frequency tones. Each instrument seemingly has a distinct role in the aural horror film: the sax “voice” offers a human element, the electronics supply the atmosphere and the piano brings elegance and formality, perhaps like the architecture in a Kubrick film, be it the Overlook Hotel or an orgy-filled manor.
Butcher is one of the most fascinating saxophonists working today, with an incredible control of his instrument and the ability to make a mind-boggling array of sounds, and Lehn plays with subtle yet disquieting tones and minutiae that might otherwise be lost or overlooked, like repeating tiny digital glitches to elevate them. While free improv can occasionally sound like a racket, on the other hand, Exta is an album of great restraint, and curious, patient listeners should proceed without a fear of the unknown.
Before complaining about the state of being a professional musician in the U.S. today, consider the case of Tal National, from Niamey, the capital of the West African nation of Niger. Here’s a band that sells its CDs by hand on roundabouts, due to Niger’s lack of a music distribution network, and plays five-hour (nonstop!) shows, five nights a week. The band’s tenacity and discipline are certainly admirable, but of course, that wouldn’t matter unless the music itself was worthwhile. Going by the group’s latest album, Kaani, which benefits from international distribution, it has certainly tapped into something special, delivering polyrhythmic guitar music that is rich, complex and entrancing, transferring energy to the listener rather than being draining.
Formed in 2000 by guitarist Hamadal Issoufou Moumine, also known as Almeida, Tal National both adapts West African folk songs and plays original numbers, and for Kaani, the band employed Chicago-based engineer Jamie Carter, who flew to Niamey and coaxed a high-quality recording out of a dilapidated studio. It strikes the right note, being a recording that is not overly slick with excessive dynamic compression; it has the clarity to allow the listener to appreciate each instrument’s soundstream, and in particular, the drums just sound true.
The quality of Kaani doesn’t waver, with each track carrying the group’s characteristic vigor while having its own personality. “Nouvelles” is tense and propulsive, driven by jittery hi-hat taps, while “Kountche” ends with delicate guitar lines that tickle the ears. “Banganésiba” turns up the distortion on the guitar a little more, leaning toward even a psychedelic guitar sound, complemented with furious beats on a talking drum. “Sarkin Fada” is a notable track with fluid lines like threads that form a swatch of vibrant fabric, coming together at choice moments to play tightly in unison. The listener’s attention is free to concentrate on individual elements on Kaani—such as the electric guitar pointillism or smooth and limber bass line—like discerning the flavors in a complex wine, or to zoom out and be lifted by the overall rhythmic momentum of the band.