John Coxon and Ashley Wales, the talents behind Spring Heel Jack, have certainly thrown many of their listeners for a loop with their recent outings. Coxon, a producer who has worked with the likes of Marc Almond, and Wales, a classically-trained composer, initially made a splash in the drum ‘n’ bass/breakbeat jungle scene, managing to create full-length albums that were both energetic and held up to repeated close listening, all without ever tarnishing their status in the fiercely competitive world of electronica. They collaborated with Everything But the Girl, creating the hit track “Walking Wounded” especially for the group. But something strange began to happen with their 2001 release Masses. Working with avant-garde and downtown jazz musicians like Matthew Shipp, Evan Parker, and Tim Berne, the duo provided electronic backdrops over which the jazz musicians would improvise freely. Then Coxon and Wales took the recordings and subjected them to further studio manipulation, adding additional musicians or new layers of electronic sound. The results were innovative, stunning, and unlike much heard previously in either the realm of jazz or electronic music.
This time out Matthew Shipp, the guiding force behind Thirsty Ear Recordings’ improvised music series, known as the Blue Series, is the only American. Coxon and Wales have chosen to collaborate with a group of European (largely British) jazz heavyweights including Evan parker, Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink. To this they add Jason Pierce (J Spaceman) of the British band Spiritualized. The results demonstrate that Shipp is realizing his vision of creating a sound that, not unlike that of the early ECM catalog, created a synthesis of deep jazz roots fused with more open, somewhat avant-garde playing. While Spring Heel Jack and most of the musicians on their last two albums are more fiercely avant-garde than those in the early ECM catalog, the concept is somewhat similar, and equally successful.
Amassed seems to work best taken as an organic whole with its own rhythms that range from manic activity to somewhat in your face brutality to exquisite beauty. For example, the opening track, “Double Cross”, begins with some Evan Parker playing against some whispering bass work, slowly encroached upon by a dark, funereal broth of electronic textures that creates a sense of uneasiness that continues to grow almost unbearably until a little over three minutes in, when the landscape shifts to a less organic, industrial sound created by Ed Coxon’s violin work. At this point Parker’s playing becomes frenetic and seemingly subsumed by the surrounding environment, finally relapsing into the uneasiness of the opening section. “Amassed” features a brooding rhythm section (featuring Shipp’s Fender Rhodes piano work) that at times recalls the dark, almost free jazz feel of some of Miles Davis’ electric rhythm sections before the piece explodes briefly into a giant cloud of electronic noise, free drumming, and shrapnel-like electric guitar before subsiding, leaving Shipp and drummer Han Bennink to pick up the pieces and create a new atmosphere out of nothing.
About two minutes into “Wormwood” the first feeling of something approaching a straightforward beat appears, though it is very fragile and consistently threatens to disintegrate. The piece does manage to create some consistent vigor, though, as Shipp, Bennink, and electric bassist George Trebar support Jason Pierce’s guitar solo. Like the work of Sun Ra or Jimi Hendrix, the piece uses seemingly chaotic or noisy elements to generate and add to an energy that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Though that energy slowly dissipates over the last two minutes as Parker and Rutherford jam in a seemingly directionless manner, there is still an echo of it in Shipp’s concluding electric piano riff, repeated over and over until coming to a final stop. The next track, “Lit” is one of the album’s very gorgeous moments, as a gentle, ambient series of chords is created beneath an electronic sound that recalls a crackling fire or some type of material being shredded. Kenny Wheeler enters with a sublime flugelhorn solo that recalls the melancholy, romantic-yet-detached work of Chet Baker. This sonic beauty continues for several minutes before the piece breaks down and ends with a crunching electronic sound, as though the preceding music were a creation of some deity who decides his work is too imperfect to be heard, crumbles it up, and tosses it into some trash can of the gods.
“Maroc” is a showcase for Parker soprano work, a near endless series of runs throughout the complete register of the horn, occasionally accompanied by some of Pierce/Spaceman’s electric guitar sounds, but essentially a solo lead-in to the album’s centerpiece, “100 Years Before.” This track has all the earmarks of a real, organic group improvisation, seemingly with minimal noodling from Coxon and Wales, and the results are spectacular, as you might expect from a seasoned group of avant-garde visionaries. Pierce acquits himself well on electric guitar as well, but Parker and Wheeler really stand out, interacting with grace and beauty. Though the piece is the longest on the album at nearly nine and a half minutes, you could easily listen to this vibe for much longer.
“Duel”, the penultimate track, is all energy and allows a lot of input from Coxon and Wales, which works nicely as a moderating influence on the frenetic activity of Bennink and Parker, who are the duelists of the title. The track recalls the heyday of late ‘60s avant-garde jazz, never letting up for the totality of its six minutes. This leads into “Obscured”, which is anchored throughout by a strong, primitive electronic rhythm, over which instruments are added, creating a thick sonic soup that , while clearly a free blowing session, manages to evoke a solid groove, bringing to mind some of the work of Miles Davis’ 1973-75 live bands (as heard on Agharta) or perhaps a more revved-up version of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi sextet.
Amassed is going to shake up both electronica and jazz circles with its willful, uncompromising merging of elements of both musical forms. It’s hard to imagine many who greeted Masses with a resounding, “What the…” finding Amassed any more listenable. On the other hand, most jazz fans, even some who admire the work of Shipp, Parker, et al, are going to have a hard time with the sonic manipulation and electronic flourishes found here. But there are a group of listeners, some from each camp, and some from no camp at all, who will delight in the new ground broken here and the uneasiness that comes from feeling that there is nothing else quite like this out there today. Those are the folks that Shipp is aiming at with the Thirsty Ear Blue Series, and they will revel in this aesthetic-equal parts free jazz and electronic experimentation, but in the end not capable of being defined as either.