[19 July 2009]
Maher Shalal Hash Baz already have one must-hear album out this year, though you might have missed it. Gok, a collaboration with Scottish jazz musician Bill Wells, was a simple but hauntingly beautiful set of pieces that melded children’s music, jazz, and improvisation. It was easier to relate to than C’est La Derniere Chanson, by my count Maher Shalal Hash Baz’s 18th studio album over the past two decades. Tori Kudo, the guy at the centre of all this action, remains an enigmatic figure, half visionary, half batty. His philosophy of music, such as it can be understood from his recent work, is not so much to create music that’s simplistic as that which is accessible. It used to be music for any amateur musician to play, mistakes and all. But things have shifted a little since 2007’s excellent L’Autre Cap. That is, on both the Wells collaboration and here on C’est La Derniere Chanson, Kudo’s music is becoming more coherent. Kudo collated a nine-member Japanese ensemble and rounded it out with local musicians for a performance in France to make this new album. There are less of the obvious performance errors, though there’s still a charming out-of-tune, in-the-middle-of-a-rehearsal quality to the playing.
But on C’est La Derniere Chanson, Maher Shalal Hash Baz has something new to say. First of all, let’s take stock. This is a double-CD release; it clocks in at one and a half hours; it has an astounding 177 tracks. Only a handful (20 or so) of these are over one minute in length, and only one is longer than three minutes. The vast majority are single musical phrases, perhaps repeated once or twice, with a few seconds of silence at the end. The Amazon product page describes these as “musical gestures”, and that’s right on. They’re single ideas, all exposition without subsequent development, like the musical version of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. They are the scraps that other musicians would leave on the studio floor, ones which Maher Shalal Hash Baz has carefully raked over and presented to us, confident in their own innate worth.
“More Errors”, the longest piece, is built around a verse sung in Kudo’s heavily accented (pretty much incomprehensible) English over a simple but effective horn melody. “Job”, a fast-muttered Japanese litany, appropriating classic pop tropes as the refrain kicks in: “Please, please to understand / I never meant to hurt or hate you”. The pieces are jumbles of ideas, reflected in the jumbled instrumental tonalities and reflecting, in turn, the jumbled experience of life. Now and then, from the bleat of horns or bassoons a nostalgic melody catches your attention (check out “Last Autumn 2007”, or “After Landing”, or “Air Conditioned II”). If only the best ideas lasted longer, or were developed, even to the minimal extent of those in L’Autre Cap. I know, it’s part of the point. And listening to the album through, you don’t hear individual pieces, but rather, these short, sedate phrases that are separate but together form a ruminative, raked-over whole.
C’est La Derniere Chanson may not have the completeness of vision of some of Maher Shalal Hash Baz’s former work, but it’s still rewarding, if you take the time to follow its wandering lead. I don’t know if anyone’s studying Tori Kudo, writing theses about him, but he deserves the analysis. My guess is his unorthodox approach and unique ideas about music will continue to inspire and baffle us for a long time.