Frank Zappa once said about America’s least appreciated and most influential musical form, “Jazz isn’t dead; it just smells funny”. Zappa was full of little quotable quips like this, and his witty observation on a genre that (on average) moves less units per year than classical music was especially accurate. Jazz took candy from some questionable strangers in the 1980s and 1990s, courtesy of uber-hacks like Kenny G, Dave Koz, and schlocky groups like the Rippingtons and Fourplay. “Smooth jazz” suddenly became synonymous with “jazz” to the average record-buying household, allowing some folks to dupe themselves into believing they had a wider musical taste than Barbara Streisand.
Thanks to musicians like Tim Berne, the smooth jazz community has been kept in check blow-by-blow, sort of like a bullshit detector that squeals and brays whenever the soft sounds of a dentist’s waiting room float in the air. Berne, much like his fellow New York City saxophonist John Zorn, has been one of the key players and bandleaders in the contemporary avant-garde/free jazz scene, firing off improvised impulses with groups like Bloodcount, Caos Totale, and Big Satan.
Those who will dig on Souls Saved Hear, the new record by Big Satan (and follow up to 1997’s I Think They Liked it Honey), already know who they are: enthusiasts of the fringes, climbers who repel the improvisatory abyss. Big Satan (Berne on alto sax, Marc Ducret on guitar, Tom Rainey on drums) purees jazz in a blender and strains its chopped, disconnected remnants through a colander. Souls Saved Hear is an adventurous listen for the most discriminating, open-minded listener. Forget Interstellar Space; Souls Saved Hear is like riding shotgun in a hyper-drive Millennium Falcon navigating its way through miles of space junk. The ten-minute opening track, “Ce Sont les Noms des Mots”, is a good example of the shifting temperaments that fuel the group’s idiosyncratic discussions. The song begins with Ducret’s solo guitar, straddling classical, flamenco, and jazz flourishes. Berne enters, and the two instruments fleetingly touch on a melody reminiscent of “Girl From Ipanema” before sending it head-over-heels down the rabbit hole. When Rainey joins in, he does so without accompaniment, stuttering through tribal polyrhythms. Berne and Ducret return, and all three players devour an incredulous, complex melody. If the song is challenging to follow in its first half, it’s downright demanding in the second half: the instruments gobble up each other’s tails, spiraling into improvisations that are so obtuse, you expect everything to fly out of control.
The manic level of musicianship rarely lets up; from start to finish, Souls Saved Hear is a turbulent trip. “Hostility Suite” forgoes any definition of groove or rhythm for a riot of scatterbrained squawks, scratches, and thumps. The frenetic header of “Geez” is doubled on sax and guitar before splintering off into ripples of counterpoint. “Rampe” crams in so many ideas, you’re left feeling breathless while trying to decode the song’s fractured equation.
Of all the record’s sliced and diced highlights, Ducret’s guitar is possibly its most fascinating. Ducret approaches each song like a chameleon moves along a tree branch. The most obvious comparisons to his style are other nonconformists like Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot, but Ducret is obviously in his own league here. He coaxes the guitar into sounding like scratched vinyl (“Hostility Suite”), a throat gargling salt water (“Geez”), and a computer attempting to communicate (“Plantain Surgery”).
No matter how far off the tracks Big Satan seems to veer, it never risks sounding wrong. Chaotic, yes; without direction, no. Souls Saved Hear is not for the uninitiated making a flagship jazz record purchase; to be honest, using Big Satan as a primer for jazz appreciation would be like introducing one to rock and roll with a copy of “Revolution No. 9”. But for the perilous student of evocative invention, Souls Saved Hear is full of endless concepts, boundless energy, and combustible conversations.