Thirsty Ear is leading the way in the cross-pollination between electronic music production and jazz. Their Blue Series seems to have set its goal no lower than to move jazz forward into the 21st Century, and in creating fresh and challenging settings for improvisation and the music’s sonic palate, they’re succeeding. In 2001 they dropped Spring Heel Jack’s dark and abstract Masses, which was a rewarding experiment in the merger of jazz improvisation and electronic textures. Earlier this year they released the excellent Matthew Shipp disc Nu Bop, which shared the general working method of Masses but was more interested in rhythmic tension and the age-old pursuit of getting down. Now DJ Spooky has weighed in with Optometry, a sprawling cityscape of an album that absorbs both the ambient/abstract and the booty-shake, and fuses them with a staggering technique and ambition.
Spooky calls Optometry “jazz for the genre splice generation”. In his thoughtful liner note essay he outlines a defense of electronic production methods and a challenge to listen from a new perspective: “Think of Optometry as sound-art—a way of seeing why concepts and sounds converge and, (sic) listen for all of the new forms you see coming out of your stereo when you press ‘play’.” Those forms are less like those of songs and more like free improvisations: linear and sprawling. And though many of the sounds are familiar—Matthew Shipp’s piano is prominent, as is William Parker’s bass, Guillermo Brown’s drum kit and Joe McPhee’s tenor saxophone—they’re irreducibly mixed with electronic gurgles, beats and chimes, as well as much exotic percussion and ever-shifting ambiences. Spooky explains, “The reflection on the surface of a shattered mirror is never whole, no matter how much we’d all like to think of contemporary reality as a seamless full scale situation: there is no one narrative holding the fabric of Americana together. And that’s a beautiful thing You play with the shards, and that’s what music in this contemporary electronic information saturated landscape is about This optometry jazz: is it live? Or is it a sample?”
It is difficult to get a fix on what rolls out of the speakers. Whereas on Shipp’s Nu Bop one has the impression that there is a band playing for at least seconds at a time together, there are no such old-fashioned comforts here; it sounds as if every note, every beat, has been cut apart from the others, examined, modified, and then carefully placed back into the mix. It can be unsettling; also compelling. In Spooky’s environment, the DJ is the master conductor; every element obeys his command; his fingerprints on every bleep. And the result, for all of the improvisation that undoubtedly went down at the recording session, Optometry is ultimately anti-improvisational. His “laptop jazz, cybernetic jazz, nu-bop, illbient a nameless, formless, shapeless concept given structure by the rhythms” locates the DJ less as a modern jazz improvisor and more of a classical composer/conductor, despite the origins of the materials. It is, as Spooky says, a kind of sonic sculpture, with the improvisational impulses frozen in amber: to unexpectedly creepy results. This feeling especially permeates the two vocal pieces featuring, separately, poet Carl Hancock Rux and Napoleon of IsWhat?!, due largely to the sampled and looped pieces of Joe McPhee’s saxophone and Daniel Carter’s flute. At first lovely, because the samples themselves contain McPhee’s and Daniel’s musical DNA, if you will, in their breathy nuances, and then somehow horrible for the same reason. Much of the finished product is like that: beautiful and grotesque. I can’t think of a better reason to listen to a record.