The good people at Thirsty Ear Recordings are doing the heavy lifting — putting out adventurous music (jazz or otherwise) that expands the notion of what improvised music is all about. Restless, exciting, and occasionally indulgent, Thirsty Ear material has made the last five or six years an exciting time in the music.
But that doesn’t mean I have to like everything they do.
Longitude is the second installment in a projected trilogy of recordings pairing drummer Bobby Previte and guitarist Charlie Hunter, then matching that duo with a special guest. The assemblage is called Groundtruther, which according to our good friend Mr. Webster might mean something like, “in the earth sciences, the facts that are confirmed in an actual field check is done at a location, specifically the determination of facts by examining the ground for patterns revealed by remote sensing or aerial photography”. Uh, OK. Whatever.
On last year’s first Groundtruther recording, Latitude, the special guest was alto player Greg Osby. The recording achieved the balance of a tripod: rhythm, harmony, and melody, even if the ground was constantly shifting under these improvisers’ feet. They passed the focus in the music around and, as a result, it felt like a wealth of options existed in the sound. Here, the special guest is of a different, less conventional stripe: DJ Logic. And, though the fault should not be laid at the feet of the turntablist, the balance here is all out of whack.
On Longitude it feels like no one is taking the lead. Hunter sets up riffs on his either the bass or treble strings of his eight-string guitar (more often than not pseudo-metal slabs of sound that are played with conviction), and Previte pounds away, but neither leader inhabits the center of these tunes. DJ Logic clutters up the sonic landscape with interesting squeaks and rubs and rattles and loops, but the result of a basement full of noiseful distraction but little music that carries the listener forward into surprise or pleasure or discovery.
The opener, “Transit of Venus” is as good an example as any. Hunter offers some distant-sounding processed chimes as guitar, after which Previte enters with a muffled rock beat that syncopates nicely. DJ Logic run out some kind of singing or chanting — “Aayyyy!” — that could be in a foreign language, then Hunter is in with a simple bass line. With all this going, Hunter plays a semi-distorted lead line that is neither particularly melodic nor interestingly improvised. The chimey sound returns, the “Aayyy!” guys kind of weaves in and out. Then there is what sounds like a brief improvised guitar solo, but not even close to the kind of thing we’re used to hearing Hunter lay down on his own records. About four-and-a-half minutes into this collage, it sounds like they’re winding it up, at which point the rhythm fragments and stutters for a while. The bass line returns to groove, then fragments, grooves then fragments — then the chimey guitar again at the end. For your six-minute investment in this listening process, however, you got mainly texture and very little of anything else.
So what is Groundtruther supposed to be? Previte’s associations are with the downtown New York scene or Zorn and Wayne Horvitz and the like — a scene of semi-out players who are very interested in formal composition that makes use of free playing. His playing includes about as much rock as it does Mingus. Hunter’s associations sit somewhere between straight-ahead soul jazz and the jam-band scene. So the through-line among Hunter, Previte, and Logic appears to be groove. That’s why so many songs — like “March 1741, Cape Horn”, for example — are based around a repeated line from Hunter that Previte and Logic and groove around. On this outing, Groundtruther seems to be an exercise almost entirely in time and texture.
It’s interesting to note that Longitude seems to alternate regularly between long (five to eight minutes) and short (two to three minute) songs. The length does not seem to solve the problem of monotony in either direction. “Course Made Good” is less than three minutes but grows tiresome nevertheless, the faux-metal repeated like just beaten to death over time. For reasons known only to Groundtruther, the sound of the recording gets purposefully more muddy as the song winds down. The following song, “Dead Reckoning”, then recycles the drumbeat and guitar riff, at least at first. At the two-minute mark it shifts into something else, a post-Mahavishnu jam that eventually devolves into herky-jerky guitar funk and tom-tom rolls that seem never to end.
Perhaps a more charitable view of this music is that it has atmospheric qualities that would make it a superb soundtrack to just the right movie. “Medicean Stars” is evocative, layering guitar harmonics over electronic drums. “Jupiter Mask” trades in a menacing guitar line that locks with the tom-groove. “Back-Quadrant” lets Hunter indulge some jammy strumming over a spaced-out funk. And over all these tracks, DJ Logic gets to float his favorite samples and sounds. If David Cronenberg ever decides to film Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, then Longitude is pre-made as its postmodern soundtrack, with all the song titles already appropriate for the historical surveyors/astronomers who measured the transit of Venus in 1841 and featured in the nineteenth century search for navigational solutions.
Short of that pleasing outcome, I will just confess it: I find this music vaguely irritating. I want to like everythingThirsty Ear puts out. I want to be continually on-board with the hip ventures of DJ Logic, and I want to support jazz musicians whenever they expand their horizons. But — at least for me — this project is unfocused, falling back too often on Hunter’s least interesting metal inclinations and leaving Previte nothing to do but pound and groove away in the background. Here’s hoping that the third installment in Groundtruther’s trilogy, to be titled Amplitude, is a return to form.