It’s a common phenomenon for musicians to switch from rock to jazz as their preferred mode of expression, most frequently occurring as talented players seek extended challenges to their virtuosity as they grow older—or become bored with the perceived limitations of rock music. When it happens the other way around, it’s generally commercial considerations, rather than artistic concerns, that fuel the shift. Former Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, however, represents the rarer scenario; after recording some free-leaning jazz dates in mid-1960s Germany, he grew tired of the music’s lack of form and went on to join Can, with whom he created some of the most forward-thinking rock music of the entire 1970s.
Liebezeit’s worldview hasn’t changed much in the ensuing years, if Secret Rhythms 2, a co-led collaboration with electronic artist Burnt Friedman, is any indication. For this sequel to 2002’s Secret Rhythms, also on Friedman’s Nonplace label, the principles have adopted more of a band-oriented methodology, and the results reflect the sound of an avant-jazz/rock group with electronic embellishments. Of the additional players, Hayden Chisholm’s melodica and clarinet work is featured prominently throughout, giving the music a dub-like quality—which is no surprise considering Friedman’s ongoing work with his Nu Dub Players ensemble.
Yet there’s no mistaking who’s in charge of the show, as Friedman’s production shapes the tracks into a seamless flow of ideas, all propelled by the secret ingredient of Liebezeit’s unmistakable drumming. Indeed, many of the pieces composed for Secret Rhythms 2 carry a tribal heartbeat that segues from one piece to the next, handing off the pulse like a relay baton that signals a change in musical direction. Additionally, melodies often remain submerged for minutes at a time, functioning more as connective tissue from one groove to the next—a tactic strongly reminiscent of Soon Over Babaluma-era Can.
But this can be a problematic approach without the innate telepathy and dynamic flair shared by Liebezeit’s former associates—not to mention the judicious editing and post-production taste contributed by Can bassist Holger Czukay. The reveals itself most clearly in the isolated lapses in focus on longer tracks like “Niedrige Decken”, although the significantly shorter “Broken Wind Repair Kit” and “Caracolas” suffer similar fates. And even though the entire album is laced with rhythms and production techniques indebted to dub, “Fearer” takes the influence a bit too literally with downtempo strains that could pass as Massive Attack until Chisholm introduces his clarinet line halfway through.
On an otherwise instrumental record, one significant departure is “The Librarian”, which features guest vocals by David Sylvian. The merger of Morten Grnvad’s vibraphone, Tim Motzer and Joseph Suchy’s guitar washes, and Sylvian’s richly expressive voice creates a noir-ish atmosphere, building quite wonderfully to serpentine clarinet and melodica lines before melting into the glitchy techno rhythms of “Mikrokasper”. Taken on its own, it’s quite powerful—but one can’t help but wonder what might result from a fully realized collaboration between Sylvian and the Friedman/Liebezeit-helmed ensemble.
Channeling the spirits of Augustus Pablo and Can certainly isn’t the worst musical concept to attempt, and Friedman and Liebezeit do a credible job of making it work—even if the disc’s second half isn’t nearly as eventful as the first. What’s most noteworthy about it is that it’s difficult to tell, even when listening closely, how much of the music’s structure is determined by production and what results from the natural interaction of players highly skilled in the art of restraint. For that trait alone it’s an interesting listen, even if it occasionally takes some work on the listener’s part to retrieve it from background status.