Ears & Eyes Records ee:15-o33 2015, DD & CD album, 43m 16s
$9+ DD $12+ CD
Avant-garde music (and other art) is animated by a narrative of self-definition – it is the privileged marginal, the self-marking other, whose exteriority to the mainstream is established by virtue of the trailblazer’s enhanced legitimacy, rather than its exclusion from the established sites of legitimacy. But one person’s avant-garde, obviously, is another person’s outsider art, and it is only in the writing of history (from within the established sites of legitimacy) that any such status is assigned with durable authority. This is not to say that ‘the’ avant-garde’s internal claims and narratives render it immune to the operations of power, and it is frequently the mainstream’s arbitrary generic distinctions that will force such claims. For example, notwithstanding the vast range of experimental, aesthetically forbidding forms in jazz, the mainstream of that tradition is often so straitly defined that a few stylistic markers astray can exclude a piece of improvisational music that is relatively conventional in its approach to headline formal dimensions such as tonality and cyclicity. This is clearly the case with Darts & Arrows, a band which is described in the ‘sleeve notes’ to this album (to be found on the Bandcamp page rather than the digipak) as an inhabitant of ‘Chicago’s experimental rock and new music scene’; or at least, whether it is the case or not, guitarist and leader Bill MacKay has pre-empted any potential question of this music’s status as jazz or not-jazz by making no claims to any tradition. In both its instrumental forces and its musical materials there seems little cause for such coyness, and were this music to have originated in Europe, where such questions are less vexed, there would be no doubt as to its place well within the precincts of that broad church. It is certainly the word I would use (as I have above) if I wished to quickly summarise the general sort of thing a listener could expect to hear – and on this side of the pond, the elements of rock, folk and other styles that these improvisers spend much of their time chewing on have been so extensively assimilated to the jazz tradition that there is little controversial about their inclusion. I would hesitate to say that it doesn’t matter what you call it, as the jazz tradition and its constitution are matters of pronounced, polyvalent significance in US culture, but a decision to avoid the question makes perfect sense when you hear this music, which is far more concerned with creating inclusive and rewarding atmospheres than it is with upending the language or prompting its listeners to reassess their assumptions.
It is probably a significant choice that Altamira opens with the expanded line-up, including Renee Baker (viola) and Nick Mazzarella (alto saxophone) – their contribution to ‘Evergreen’s ensemble passages (as to those in the other two pieces to which they contribute) mark the most expansive, generous moments on this record. The harmonic richness that produces such broad affective territories is not limited to those moments, however, as MacKay’s guitar works closely with Ben Boye’s keyboards to produce textures of warm timbral and harmonic density. These two principal voices exhibit a marked similarity on many levels – whether this is a matter of adaptation to the project in hand, or whether they sound more or less the same whoever they are playing with, is a question I lack the contextual knowledge to answer. Both use amplifiers set to the threshold of a sweet natural overdrive, letting them tweak their sounds through playing dynamics, and their sounds occupy a similar frequency range, resulting in warm, vintage distortions that, together with similarities in their playing, particularly in the compatibility of their chord voicings, which would rarely sound out of place on the other instrument, make it sometimes easy to forget which instrument one is listening to. Sometimes the effect is of only one instrument playing, perhaps operated by four hands on a keyboard, or that a large choir of some previously unknown monophonic instrument is performing carefully scored ensemble compositions. Their timbral warmth is matched by the beautifully recorded acoustic bass of Kyle Hernandez, whose roundness of tone and easy precision of note placement produce a unified sense of rhythmic and harmonic security. Quin Kirchner’s drums, although they certainly display some chops when called upon to do so, are so sensitive to the needs of the ensemble that they often seem to disappear, even when, as in ‘Look Out’, they are the busiest voice, weaving stress patterns in and out of the other parts like couples stripping the willow at a ceilidh.
That tune, the most aggressively faithful to the rock tradition of all the pieces on the album, first struck my ears with a certain ‘exoticism’, an eastern tinge, that on closer listening I understood to be mediated by the long histories of psychedelic rock, in whose hands the flat nine and the figural phrasing that accompanies it have more or less forgotten their moment of appropriation. There is certainly a good deal more of psychedelic rock in this music than there is of the kind of naïve ‘world-music’ borrowings that gave that genre some of its forms, and whatever sources of musical material Darts & Arrows employ, they do so with respect and understanding. ‘Latin music’ (an unfortunately reductive term) is so much a part of the American musical landscape that it must hardly sound ‘other’ today, particularly in a setting that can be related to the jazz tradition: but in ‘1919 Molasses Tragedy’ (a wonderful title, whose historical reference is all the more poignant for its absurdity), the nuanced groove, drawing on both Brazilian and Cuban musics, is the occasion for self-effacing explorations that suggest a broad and deep interest in musics of the Spanish speaking world. For the most part though, the musical materials are mostly drawn from the tradition that the band owns up to in its publicity materials: harmonic rhythms eschew the Lydian-chromatic intricacies that are identified with the acme of tonal jazz, preferring the dramatic modalities and broad brushes of rock, while the grooves water their roots in a steady succession of eighth notes. It is the musicians’ close attention (and their application of considerable instrumental skill) to dynamics and timbre that marks this music’s profound alterity in relation to rock music, producing a subtle web of light and shade that exceeds that zone of practices’ affective compass considerably. Of course rock has a well established avant-garde, many of whose proponents have professed similar improvisational and compositional subtleties, but it is one of the characteristics of an avant-garde that it cannot be reduced to a catalogue of stylistic or procedural features, and Altamira is clearly too rigorously creative a work to be categorised with ease.
It might seem tautological to say that the authors of an aesthetic object such as an album of music have made aesthetics a primary creative focus, but I think it would be fair to say that of Darts & Arrows, inasmuch as the qualities of texture, instrumental timbre and phrasing are pursued rigorously throughout. There is a distinct intentionality about the way that each dimension of their sound interacts with the others to produce singular and continuously changing atmospheres: this is a music of conscious interaction, in which each player responds to the barest gestures of their cohorts with subtlety and grace. There is a certain melancholy to much of Altamira, but it is far from maudlin, and the most abiding impression, for me, is one of warmth and generosity. This is an album of almost exclusively consonant music, with engaging harmonies and regular, symmetrical rhythms. It is not abrasive or forbidding at all, but its complexities require no less attention on the part of the listener than do those of any overtly experimental or atonal record; it may be that they require a different kind of attention, and the first demand that this music makes of its audience is that they should trust it, and give themselves over to its affective world. In that demand lies an expression of profound mutuality, a trust in the listener, who will have to approach the music with a generosity equal to that with which it is made if they are to hear its full particularity and the great emotional investment that is made in each moment. It would of course be possible to allow this record to play in the background, and it would provide ‘a nice sound’, but the vast majority of what it has to offer would be lost. These sounds are invitations, voices of community, saying to the listener ‘hear this: join us’. Clearly there are no sing-along choruses here, but the offer that is made is of a different kind to such generic appeals to the simple desire to celebrate en masse. The invitation is to share a set of experiences, these very specific experiences, in all their irreducible complexity and splendour. This is a record of singular power and beauty.