Isamu McGregor – Live At The Baked Potato (jazz)
Amorphous Paraphernalia Records, 2012, CD album, 78m 18s
Jazz fusion, after the initial excitement attending its arrival, organised itself into two broad sets of practices: one organised musical materials drawn from various forms of popular music, embracing new musical technologies, with the harmonic erudition of jazz, into complex, highly organised arrangements; the other really just carried on doing jazz, but did so with new sounds and a new phraseology. The latter approach is typified by Miles Davis’ late 60s albums, and continues to be about the creativity of performance, about composition as a pretext for playing, rather than musicianship as a means to realise composition. For me this approach reached its apotheosis with Herbie Hancock’s 1974 album Thrust, a far more coherent record than his more famous, and more arranged, Headhunters, but several other bandleaders (such as his fellow Davis alumni Chick Corea) also achieved that magical combination of imaginative simplicity and a well integrated performing unit; there are many recordings from that era based on letting a limited cast of instrumental voices explore the possibilities of some relatively straightforward musical parameters. It’s an approach that appeals to me a great deal, and is effective in many musical languages (Lúnasa’s TheKinnitty Sessions is a wonderful example from the world of Irish music), largely because it leaves no easy outs, no creative hiding places; only technically schooled and artistically alert musicians have any chance of making it work, and its difficulties are magnified commensurately with its virtues in live recordings. There is real risk in this approach to music making, particularly when improvisation is its core practice, but the reward is the possibility of a truly collaborative lucidity and cogency across a whole suite of pieces. Isamu McGregor’s debut release under his own name is very much in this tradition.
The sonic palette and vocabulary employed by McGregor and his accomplices on Live At The Baked Potato are predominantly the same as the common currency of the time I’ve been discussing; although they occasionally rock out pretty hard, there’s nothing heavier than John McLaughlin in full incendiary flow. The band refers back to the 1970s as its common practice era, just as mainstream acoustic jazz grounds its practice in the 1930s, or Western art music in the Classical period. Front and centre throughout is McGregor’s electric piano (unsurprisingly), while Deen Anbar’s guitar moves gracefully from field to figure and back again, as the circumstances require. Gene Coye’s drums purvey a complexity of skittering improvised funk, completely blurring the distinction between fill and groove, in the manner that Mike Clark pioneeredon Thrust; Evan Marien on bass is earthy and lyrical by turns, and explosive when invited into bat. Although for the most part the music can be formally analysed into thematic material/ McGregor solos/ Anbar solos, it never feels as clear-cut as that might suggest; it feels more as though the balance shifts over time, showing one side or the other of a multifaceted object that is always clearly one thing, one ensemble performance. Every player is continually responding to their circumstances, placing each note according to the need of the whole, and nobody grandstands, even when they’re blowing hard. It’s funky, dirty groove-jazz, with a lot of bluesy and altered dominant stank, that is accessible at its most abstract, and intelligent at its most accessible.
Of course it’s easy to treat this sort of approach as a blunt instrument, a bludgeon with which to display your chops and impel the listener’s head to nod, but in the hands of players with a sense of drama, dynamic and textural variations can be exploited to articulate as great an emotional range as any vocabulary is capable of expressing. Many of the pieces on Live At The Baked Potato are odysseys through complex topologies of density and viscosity, flooding the ear with detail one moment, and drawing out smoothly nuanced statements of lyric melodicism the next; broad washes of delicately filigreed atmospherics, like the first four minutes of ‘When The Lights Fell From The Sky’ display as much effortless mastery as high-octane chops-fests like ‘Urban Dragon Slayers’. If my opening paragraph might be taken to imply that this album is a compilation of jams, I should hasten to point out that although it doesn’t sound arranged, and group improvisation is its dominant practice, the musical materials in play are highly organised: furious unison runs are used to emphasize moments of high drama, and like all good dramatists, McGregor does not use his palette of intensities in an obvious or linear manner. Narratives unfold through which different qualities and degrees of energy are deployed selectively, establishing a variety of scenes in which the four instrumental voices interact like characters in a play. The emotional content is complex, if largely positive, sharing both the strengths and limitations of most modern jazz as a representation of subjective experience; the use of loud electric guitar permits a certain extension of that repertoire, but neither Wagner nor Napalm Death need fear redundancy at McGregor’s hands. The emotional world of his music is an intimate one, with a sense of psychological subjectivity akin to the paradigm of the modern novel, and the polite ensemble relationships lack any intimation of the epic, the melodramatic, the truly bleak, or anything else beyond the usual compass of jazz; there is passion, longing, spiritual yearning, tenderness, excitement, exhilaration and an ever-present sense of journey.
It’s that sense of subjectivity on which music like this will stand or fall artistically; if you want to know what these four musicians bring to the table that wasn’t already there, the only answer I can give is ‘themselves’. The standard by which most improvised music values itself is self-expression; both the perceived sincerity, and the precision, with which they apply their instruments to their internal lives, are key in producing a sound that will ring true for its audience. The language in which their meanings are articulated is pretty much thirty to forty years old, and they really make no attempt to innovate (beyond some freaky noises at the start of ‘Big Sky’); that’s fine by me, as most languages are pretty young at forty! What stops the music from sounding derivative or generic is the sheer abandon with which they fill the space defined by its stylistic parameters: McGregor knows just how much pulling and stretching his sound can stand without starting to collapse, or to sound like something else, and within those boundaries, he and his collaborators really give it some. If you are willing to accept that basic premise, the Romantic notion of self-expression, which still has plenty of mileage in it for me, for all that any number of parallel models now share the world of serious music with it, then there is a great deal of beauty to be found on this album. The players apply themselves to their work with sufficient discipline to make the appreciation of their considerable technical abilities a positive pleasure, without it ever becoming the point of the music: I’m rarely as absorbed by a recording as I am when I get swept away by the blowing on Live At The Baked Potato. The musicianship is frankly stunning, possessed in equal measure of blistering intensity and heart-stopping lyricism, and every moment is performed with total concentration and commitment.