Tuesday 17th January

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Tonight a CD by three names I only really know from a distance, the Chicago trio of Christoph Erb, (tenor sax and bass clarinet) Jim Baker (Analogue synth and piano) and Michael Zerang (multiple percussion). The release is part of a series of discs capturing improvise music in Chicago released on the Swiss Veto label for some reason. This untitled album is the first of two I have received here, the other being as solo by Erb. Each of them tend to stretch my attention a little as they veer between a kind of grittily talkative free improv and more jazz based forms. The trio disc is my favourite of the two, so I will focus on that one here.

Across the seven tracks here there is a healthy array of musical dynamics. Much of the album is music is quite busy and talkative, leaving little room for silence, but on some tracks, like the carefully paced, thoughtful Fesch it all slows down and we are presented with a quite different concern. While my personal tastes lean towards a more spacious arrangement and a slower pace, it is not uncommon for me to enjoy music that doesn’t fall into these categories if it retains a sense of vibrancy and, crucially a sense of clear structure rather than merely an adrenalin fuelled free for all. For the most part this trio manage to do this throughout the album, and in the case of one or two of the pieces they really do hot the spot. In places they also lean towards a more jazzy, nearly melodic shape, such as on the second piece, the awkwardly named Opisthoproctidae, where Baker leaves his synth, maybe the most interesting element of the album to sprinkle piano figures about over Zerang’s scratchy percussion. These areas of the album grab me less, simply because they feel less energised with tension, and, quite frankly, are just less to my taste.

This is a mixed bag then. It frustrated me somewhat listening, simply because when it did hit the spot for me it showed great promise, some very subtle interchanges of sound between the trio and a nice feeling for the pieces as a whole, their development from opening to ending. I found myself listening very carefully to the opening seconds of each track, wondering which way they might go, chatty exuberance or restrained discussion. Overall the album swung a little too near the former for me to really want to play it again any time soon, but in places, and in particular on Fesch I enjoyed it quite a bit. Still, certainly a release that will have its market, and very nicely packaged in a lovingly screen printed card slipcase.

Not connected to the above in any way at all, The Wire magazine printed its subscriber’s Best of 2011 chart today. On Christmas day I wrote this piece pondering over the Writer’s chart, and how I understood why it didn’t really reflect much in the way of improvised music. When the magazine announced that for the first time it would poll its readers I was very pleased, and intrigued to see how different the two charts would turn out to be, and crucially, how much improv would then make it into the chart. I suspected that little would, as I have always felt that the bulk readership of the magazine was not heavily into the kind of music I write about here, and it turns out I was correct, as no more improvisation made it into the reader’s chart than the writer’s. The subscriber’s listings merely look like a topsy-turvy reworking of the writer’s chart, perhaps partly as a result of the way the magazine poll worked, presenting subscribers with an online list of everything that made it into the writer’s chart, asking them to either vote for one from the list or type their own selection in at the bottom. Either way, for better or worse, it is very clear from these lists that there is a very direct correlation to be found between the overall collective tastes of those that write for The Wire and the magazine’s readership. If more improvised music isn’t covered, or if the improv albums revered so much elsewhere don’t make a dent in the chart its because the people reading The Wire just are not, on the whole, all that interested. I of course would like to see that change, and I hope to continue writing for the publication to try and do my little bit to turn things about, but at least we know for sure that the writer’s chart is not a bad reflection of the wider listening audience that read the magazine.

5 Comments

  • jon abbey January 17, 2012 - 11:51 pm

    actually, as you say, the way they conducted the reader’s poll was remarkably unscientific, so I don’t think it proves anything at all, except that if you give people a list of 50 records to vote from, it’s unlikely any/many newcomers will make the list, especially when people can only vote for one record.

  • Richard Pinnell January 18, 2012 - 12:17 am

    Well it would be good to know how many subscribers voted. If the number was in the thousands, then I think if there were genuinely some great improv records that were the favourites of a percentage of the readership then there is a chance some may have made the top fifty. Certainly I agree that the system for voting lead people to select from the same set of records, so its a warped survey in some ways, but it is worth noting, that (if my rough count is correct) twelve new records pushed their way into the chart that did not make the writers’ top fifty. If there was a significant readership interested in our corner of improvisation then I think there would be room for one or two discs in that area to force their way in. It is also I think depressingly notable that of the new discs to appear one came from Kate Bush and another from Tom Waits, and the CD that made it to number one was released on a major label.

  • jon abbey January 18, 2012 - 12:52 am

    I haven’t seen the new list yet, but if they actually wanted to do it semi-scientifically, it would have been done before their writer’s poll was released, and would have allowed people to vote for at least five discs in order of preference.

    also, as I said earlier, it’s possible that people just had trouble agreeing on what the best improv/experimental/whatever records were this year, which has nothing to do with levels of general interest or not. in 2010, motubachii was something like #13 overall and Air Supply somehow made the top 50 despite coming out in early November, maybe there was just more of a consensus among Wire writers that year.

  • wmeyer2 January 19, 2012 - 6:38 am

    I wonder how many writers voted in the listener’s poll. Since I’m a subscriber, I was invited, and since I get poll fatigue very easily I voted for the same #1 record both times. There was nothing scientific about it, but I imagine if makes the readers feel more involved.

  • Richard Pinnell January 19, 2012 - 10:47 am

    Same here Bill, though i changed my vote for the new poll. I also think this contributor’s chart was a late idea that they put together at short notice. Maybe next year the science behind it might be better.

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