There was a time when Thirsty Ear seemed poised to redefine jazz for a new millennium. Unfortunately, last decade’s (now seemingly defunct) Blue Series never quite delivered on a promise that was probably too vague to begin with. Brilliant improvisers like Matthew Shipp and William Parker aimed to meld their chosen idiom with hip-hop, electronica, and all things culturally relevant in a series of collaborations with artists like Antipop Consortium, El-P, and DJ Spooky—worthy efforts, but albums that rarely brought out the best in anyone involved. Meanwhile, the various electronic-tinged jazz CDs released under Shipp’s name had their moments, but the “DJ” element tended to be the weakest link, often holding the instrumentalists back, never pushing them into the future.
Shipp redeems himself for any and all artistic missteps on his latest outing. J Spaceman (of Spiritualized) and John Coxon (of Spring Heel Jack, itself a veteran of several Blue Series albums) each play electric guitars, while highly versatile drummer Steve Noble rounds out the quartet. Together they make up Black Music Disaster, a joking reference to a negative review of a Cecil Taylor/Anthony Braxton concert in Italy, and quite possibly the best band name of the century, not to mention one of the least accurate. Their self-titled album clocks in at less than 40 minutes and appears to have been recorded in a single live take without further overdubs or manipulation. And it all plays out as one track, ebbing and flowing and floating out of time.
The first thing to note about this album is that Shipp switches from piano to Farfisa organ and stays there. This is significant because of its freeing effect; stepping outside of his comfort zone, Shipp avoids habits picked up over several years of playing predominantly one instrument. His characteristically heavy block chords sound different, but an ominous mood remains—suggesting at times a more avant-garde take on silent-film accompaniment — and all despite (or because of?) the lightweight connotations of the Farfisa. Listeners versed in out-leaning jazz of the 1960s and ‘70s might think of Larry Young’s later Blue Notes or Sun Ra’s occasional organ forays; those who have kept up with such things more recently may recall the spacier moments of Jeff Palmer or John Medeski. And, in the best tradition, Shipp allows a clear-cut groove to establish itself at the appropriate moment (anchored by Noble, whose malleable sense of time is easy to overlook because it never really calls attention to itself).
Texture and tone take precedence over any sort of traditional solo structure here, and this leads to the second surprising thing about the album. For a collective improvisation including dueling electric guitars, the overall sound is much less cluttered than one might expect, as the guitarists appear to be taking turns—or at least generally staying out of each other’s way—for the first several minutes of the piece, building up to a sort of dramatic climax at which time both are audibly doing different (though sonically similar, even inter-related) things at the same time, and eventually powering down again. Messrs Spaceman and Coxon serve up shards of sound that compliment (and respond to) what the organ is doing, but they avoid shredding for the sake of shredding. It makes the whole “jazz” label almost irrelevant, in much the same way Sonny Sharrock threatened to on any number of records going back to the mid-’60s.
Significantly, the blurring of boundaries between “jazz,” “rock,” and “noise” (or whatever more specific term one might care to apply) never feels forced on Black Music Disaster; it just happens. The lack of pretension is refreshing because there is never any sense that the music is being crushed under its own conceptual weight. In short, this is what the Blue Series should have sounded like all along.