Akira Sakata & Jim O'Rourke with Chikamorachi & Merzbow

Flying Basket
Family Vineyard FV88

Merzbow/Balás Pándi/Mats Gustafsson/Thurston Moore

Cuts of Guilt, Cut Deeper

RareNoise Records RNRPR 052

On of the defining indicators of distinctive 21st Century improvised music is how it`s now being built on more than a Free Jazz or possibly aleatory so-called classical music tropes. Rock rhythms, electronic extensions and the acceptance of so-called noise as ends in themselves often characterize these performances and separate them from earlier avant-garde strategies. These sets, featuring Jazz-identified saxophones, Rock-wedded guitarist and the doming electronic pulses of Japan`s Masami Akita, known as Merzbow are distant example of these concepts. However one allows the noise to dominate the CD’s improvisational character, while the other subordinates the non-Free Jazz elements so that like detailing on an auto with a powerful motor, they complement rather than engulf graceful free music.

Less auspicious of the sessions is Cuts of Guilt, Cut Deeper, a two-CD set featuring Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson playing alongside ex-Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, Hungarian Jazz-Rock drummer Balás Pándi and, of course Merzbow. Although the slanting thrusts of Gustafsson’s saxophones, initially set up the themes, but by the second and third tracks – of four – reed timbres almost vanish into the ozone under the onslaught of relentless commotion. At this point on “Divided by steel, falling gracefully” for instance, the key point of intersection appears to be Merzbow’s alternating current tremolo hisses and sizzles as well as a repeated patter from Moore’s bass strings. A final attaching of clarinet tones plus guitar-string fingering reveals parts of melody submerged like an iceberg in a seemingly barren sea. But it isn’t until “Too late, too sharp – it is over” that equable contributions from all concerned produce the session’s most notable and characteristic qualities. Somehow the promised “power electronics” emanating from Moore’s and Merzbow’s plugged-in instruments create unique textures that cumulatively reconstitute the output. Mated with Gustafsson’s spittle caked duck-like quacking, these oscillated impulses which could be the sound of e electrified zithers joined with gamelan-like gongs, create an echoing climax that is as true to Free Music’s acoustic ideals as Rock and Noise musics’ aggrandizing sound-boosting for its own sake

Had the four left it there the quartet members may have demonstrated that turbulent sounding interpolations can work in Free Music, if harmonized with proper improvised strategy. Unfortunately falling victim to the performance disease that afflicts avant gardists and Metal players alike, they keep playing … and playing. Firecracker-like guitar-flange explosion and anvil-heavy drum pounding, as well as dense processed tension may rev up an Arena-rock crowd. But when the result is figuratively like a gargantuan skyscraper nearly blotting out the architecturally appropriate structure beside it, the sonic result is unbalanced. When the saxophonist then adds brutalist detailing in the form of baritone saxophone slurs, like an improperly built foundation, the finale collapses into a set of intermittent buzzes and stoic interference rather than making a grand statement.

Consisting of one long improvisation compared to the other CD’s truncated four, Flying Basket avoids many of Cuts of Guilt, Cut Deeper’s pitfalls for a variety of reasons. Paramount among them is the strength of Akira Sakata’s playing. With many more years in the Free Jazz game than Gustafsson, the Japanese alto saxophonist, clarinetist and semi-vocalist is like a seasoned pit bull dealing with a crowd of spaniel puppies here. He quickly establishes who’s the lead voice, and except for a few instances is upfront most of the time. Merzbow is properly differential to the elder Sakata on this Tokyo-recorded session; plus rather than Pándi, whose only previous Free Jazz affiliation was with tenor saxophonist Ivo Pereleman, Flying Basket’s back-up come from bassist Devin Gray and drummer Chris Corsano, who as Chikamorachi not only frequently back the saxophonist, but as often bring their power pulses to soloists in the Jazz and Noise worlds. Finally guitarist Jim O’Rourke, who plays on as well as produced the date, may be involved in the Rock and Noise world like Moore – he even did a stint in Sonic Youth – but his Free Jazz bone fides go back further than that, having worked with Gray since the early 1990s and has even recorded with Gustafsson.

While the other band members initially assert themselves like wild felines at feeding time early on Cuts of Guilt, Cut Deeper, Flying Basket is all Sakata’s sharp alto saxophone tone and bell-ringing filigree for its first four minutes. By the time Gray’s distinctive bass slaps, Crosio’s clanks and crunches and the tranquilizing effects of Merzbow’s wave form processing is established, an interactive Free Jazz groove has developed. O’Rourke’s speedy fingering locks in perfectly tongue and groove, with Sakata’s tight vibrating soars over the others’ sounds.

At nearly 71½-minutes several themes and counter themes are developed in the narrative. Slightly short of the half-way mark for instance a combination of body-shaking thrusts from the rhythm section plus patches of foliage-chomping-like interference from Merzbow may suggest Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo to the imaginative. Following this unprecedented noise explosion, the exposition calms down considerably and the mid section is given over to what the sounds would be if a listener moved from one club to another which features different bands. In one place there’s Sakata’s distinctive saxophone and woody clarinet tones front a bass-and-drums backed jazz variant. In the other a Noise session, with chromatic guitar twangs, a repetative rhythm section beat and menacing, shuddering electronics takes centestage.

Climatically like the result of proper architecture’s plans applied to a new structure, everything falls into place in the last 20 minutes. Entering Sakata’s sound orbit that replaces shrills with slurs, O’Rourke similarly trades Indie Rock sludge for contrapuntal and connective slurred fingering and Chikamorachi synchronizes with Merzbow’s warmer wave forms. The few times that the remaining electro-drone and sharpened instrumental bumps threaten to reassert themselves had into dangerous Metal-like territory, Sakata reins in the others with his distinctive guttural vocalizing which is as traditional as a shaman’s incantation and as modern as signals from space. Finally after guitar and alto saxophone ejaculate shrieks to their shrillest limits, the five unite for a closing theme reminiscent of the exposition.

Noise, Rock and electronics don’t have to be antithetical and can be integrated into a Jazz-Improv situation. They’ve tried hard and perhaps eventually Merzbow, Pándi, Gustafsson and Moore may reach that musical Promised Land. The four already have the achieved example of Sakata, O'Rourke, Chikamorachi and Merzbow to guide them.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Cuts: 1. Replaced by Shame – only two left 2. Divided by steel, falling gracefully 3. Too late, too sharp – it is over 4. All his teeth in hand, asking her once more

Personnel: Cuts: Mats Gustafsson (tenor and baritone saxophones, g-clarinet, power electronics); Thurston Moore (guitars); Balás Pándi (drums) and Merzbow (noise, power electronics)

Track Listing: Flying: 1. Flying Basket

Personnel: Flying: Akira Sakata (alto saxophone, clarinet and vocals); Jim O’Rourke (guitar, harmonica, electronics); Devin Gray (bass, percussion); Chris Corsano (drums) and Merzbow (noise, power electronics)