Matthew Herbert: Goodbye Swingtime

Matthew Herbert
Goodbye Swingtime

The idea of taking a group of live musicians, recording them, and then splicing, looping, and otherwise manipulating the recording is certainly not new. Karlheinz Stockhausen was doing similar experiments in the late 1950s, and the idea has formed the basis for such recent encounters between electronica and jazz as Spring Heel Jack’s Amassed and DJ Spooky’s Optometry. But British electronic auteur Matthew Herbert has imposed some new ideas about ways to accomplish such a union, and his latest CD, Goodbye Swingtime, is a decidedly different take on jazztronica.

In the first place, the very notion of working with a traditionally scored big band (4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 4 saxophones, piano, bass, and drums) is a radical departure from the smaller, often amplified ensemble that such projects have generally used. Big band music has become identified with the swing era (hence the album’s title), and with opulence and elegance. The genre mostly died out in the 1950s, but there was a resurgence of big band activity in the 1970s, spearheaded by jazz’s fusion movement. Nonetheless, the idea of the big band as an ensemble for the exploration of thoroughly modern ideas in music has been relegated to a very few groups led by composers such as Toshiko Ashiyoki, Maria Schneider, and Carla Bley.

Herbert is dedicated to starting without preconceived notions of what the big band should do or sound like, and to this end he utilizes his own set of compositional rules, known as PCCOM, or “Personal Contract for the Composition of Music.” PCCOM contains such caveats as “The use of sounds that exist already is not allowed.” This precludes the use of drum machines or of factory programmed electronic keyboard sounds without editing of some kind. There is no sampling of other people’s music, and no replication of acoustic instruments using electronic means (synthesizers). These rules alone set Herbert well apart from his electronic brethren who are working with jazz/electronica combinations. The sounds that Herbert samples and uses are either those that were generated during or specifically for the recording sessions, including people banging things they could find within the studio, and people from around the world dropping their local telephone directories from various heights. In addition, Herbert introduces a political component to the music by utilizing sounds generated by people reading various political texts (a list of which is provided), the sound of his printer printing information from a political website, and clippings sent from around the world regarding the then-imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq being crumpled up.

All of this is meant to embed the music with a political component, but it is difficult to imagine how this message will be delivered to anyone without a press release in hand or a lengthy visit to Herbert’s website, So, the question that really needs to be asked is, what does the music sound like, and is it any good on its own? The answer is that this is mostly good music that stands up well on its own and provides the adventurous listener with a solid musical experience. However, that experience is extremely varied and eclectic, and might not necessarily appeal to the normal big band, jazz, or electronic music audience. For example, “Chromoshop” featuring choppy, off-kilter horns that punctuate the vocals of Shingai Shoniwa and Dani Siciliano, sounds like a number from a contemporary Broadway production. “The Battle” is a very modern big band track punctuated by electronic manipulations and blips, courtesy of Herbert and Mouse on Mars, that momentarily give it an Esquival-type surrealism.

The main building block for this recording was a live performance by the big band at the Montreux Jazz Festival (featuring arrangements by Peter Wraight), which is the chief source material that Herbert and his colleagues are manipulating. What is missing from the final product, and one can only assume from the initial performance as well, is any real improvisation. The big band arrangements, while very well done and interesting to listen to, are very tightly controlled and there is a great deal of ensemble playing, but rarely does a solo voice rise above the fray, and this is made even more apparent by the manipulation of the big band recording, which adds a second layer of tight control over the sound. The final sound is so overwhelmingly controlled, so polite, that it tends to undercut the music’s political subtext as well as the ironic title of the album. Ultimately, then, you have a piece of well-made music consisting of a manipulated big band recording and manipulated acoustic sounds that have political meaning. It’s good and provocative, neither fish nor fowl. In some ways, it sounds like nothing so much as a digitally processed and manipulated Carla Bley recording. But Bley’s work conveys gobs of humor and a real sense of passion, and she allows the musicians with whom she works to convey their individuality. Goodbye Swingtime is both interesting and innovative, but somehow it just doesn’t allow the listener to connect emotionally with either the big band side or the electronic side of the project.