I wonder if many of you, like me, run into this issue when making a list: there is simply too much music to share. Add to this the desire to deliver something of interest to a larger group of readers, and (for me) this effort inevitably results in a too long list of disparate selections, and/or a playlist so deep there is little chance anyone would get to the bottom. What to do? I make up arbitrary rules. Or, try to distill the idea down to serve up what I hope to be a deliciously complex bite sized bit of music. So, there’s that – rules.
And there’s this – I love stories.
This is what I’ve realized after decades of eagerly absorbing music and film. Music has always been priority one, but movies aren’t far behind. More recently, short films have become a part of my regular diet. There is a subtle use of music here, but it is one of the short films I found in the last couple years that has stayed with me.
I am fascinated by the blending of images – still and moving – and music. Of course, many bands tour with elaborate lighting, projected images, film and set pieces. It goes beyond moving pictures too – in recent years a few artists have created comics and graphic novels with soundtracks. An interesting evolution of that storytelling form, I think.
In early 2017, I saw Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman in the theater with drummer Antonio Sanchez performing (improvising!) the score live on stage in front of the screen. There’s that—that was something. The mix of the tightly scripted and intricately choreographed film and live improvised music was energizing. And, well, drums. I love drums. So I am fascinated by music’s role in storytelling. I wouldn’t say that I’m a soundtrack collector (I own just a handful of OST’s). I do love and collect experimental and instrumental improvised music.
Here we are, then—a short list of instrumental and largely improvised records that I find intriguing, evocative, and that weren’t written for, but perhaps should (only in my mind) be married to visuals. OK, two of these were actually written for films…though long after their original release. I had to get them in there.
Screw the rules.
Hoping you find something new.
Bill Frisell, Music for the films of Buster Keaton: The High Sign/One Week (1995)
In 1920 Buster Keaton released his debut – the silent comedy, One Week. The following year he released The High Sign, which was actually filmed before One Week, but was held back because Keaton considered it the weaker of the two. Go West was released in 1925.
Sixty-eight years later, in May of 1993, Bill Frisell, Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron performed Frisell’s music for all three Keaton films at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn, NY. It was two years later when they released these two cds containing performances of the film music. Live performances with screenings of the films were staged here and there over the years, though apparently more often in Europe than in the US. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it live.
In a 2011 interview, Frisell said they hadn’t intended to release the music separately, though it wasn’t until 2009 that a DVD (I’ve one on the way) version with the performance synced to the films was released. This sparked renewed interest in the live performances, one of which took place at UCLA in 2011. Incidentally, the trio who performed on that day (Frisell, drummer Kenny Wolleson and bassist Tony Scherr) toured this year and we caught the show at the MIM in Phoenix. YES. My favorite show this year…The Flaming Lips at Summerfest was a close second. The Lips show was bananas, and completely different, of course, but I digress…
On these discs, the trios interplay is orchestrated, organic and strikingly intuitive. Frisell – as always – creates a lovely atmosphere for his melancholy melodies and brief chaotic turns (see Tap Dancer and Confusion). Driscoll’s playing – on both electric and upright bass – seems telepathic at times. Baron punctuates lines and implies the beat more often than laying it down. Maybe it’s my familiarity with Frisell’s other music released between 1988-1995, but much of it sounds…inevitable. If I was forced to pick a favorite Frisell band, it’s these three.
While I trust this music will shine brightest when paired with the films, these two discs stand well on their own.
Splashgirl, Field Day Rituals (2013)
Splashgirl, the Norwegian ‘doom piano trio’ as their label Hubro and others have described them, was the first band to release a record on the Hubro label. Here they make ponderous, heavy, resonant footfalls in the darkest spaces. The production sounds huge, but nearly claustrophobic at times – few rays of light pierce these shadows. That’s not to say the music lacks detail, or heart – it simply drifts within the inky gauze of the production. There are a few tracks that resolve beautifully (try “I Feel Like I Know Her”), and relieve the pressure, if only briefly. Eyvind Kang, who has also played with Bill Frisell, adds viola on tracks like “Dulcimer”. Sunn O))) and Earth fans may be interested to know that producer/engineer Randall Dunn worked closely with the trio on this album, and has continued to collaborate with them in recent years. I have this record on vinyl (45 rpm/ 2LP/ gatefold) and it sounds fantastic. I’ve a couple others from Hubro, and all of them are exceptionally quiet. Hubro are serious about vinyl.
Highly recommended. Play loud.
Nolatet, No Revenge Necessary (2018)
This is a great example of New Orleans improvised music. Loopy, funky and grounded in the city’s traditions. Also, it may work (see Lanky, Stanky, Maestro) as a soundtrack for 21st century Looney Toons…though that’s mostly due to the vibraphone. I love the spacious studio recording – it sounds excellent, and feels like it was done live in one room. That energy translates easily through all the wire and glass to my ears. My Audioquest Nightowl headphones naturally reveal the well lit, tonally balanced, yet vivid and dynamic recording. This music draws you in with its infectious energy. The killer rhythm section is one that’s also in demand elsewhere—James Singleton on acoustic bass and Johnny Vidacovich behind the kit. It’s still new to me, but overall, No Revenge Necessary is a fun romp from Royal Potato Family records.
The Bad Plus, Made Possible (2012)
This irreverent and adventurous trio irritated some purists when they arrived on the scene in the early 2000’s. Their habit of covering rock songs, and working with engineers like Tchad Blake (These Are the Vistas – 2003) to create intimate and unique sonic spaces (there are some electronics used here for texture) certainly established them as maverick improvisers. Then again, I wonder how different they are in spirit from the great 20th century improvisers they clearly revere? Any tag reduces the thing being described, but for The Bad Plus, perhaps ‘improvised music’ is a more apt tag than ‘jazz’.
I’m less concerned from which virtual bin their product should be sold, and more in their sometimes raucous, often lyrical and compelling music. I often lean toward the more abstract and lyrical tunes like “In Stitches” (Reid Anderson), but I’m just as often wanting more of tracks like “For My Eyes Only”, written by drummer Dave King. A ponderous beat opens the track leaving us plenty of room to get inside and cozy up to the lovely melody, only to drop the floor out from a delicate bridge including fantastic pizzicato playing from Anderson, and then bring the drama with a raucous return to start. A pop ballad played with nuance and the insight of great improvisers.
The Bad Plus have been touring this year behind their latest record, Never Stop II (2017), with new piano player, Orrin Evans. I’m anxious to hear what their future brings.
Thanks for listening.
Darren recently joined the TM team.