Was ever a musical descriptor more maligned and ridiculed than the term ‘fusion’? Since roughly the turn of the millennium, when the widespread availability of broad-band internet connections made file sharing pretty much a compulsory activity for voracious music-lovers, and led to a culture where basically everybody is listening to everything, we’ve seen quite a few previously derided musical forms make startling comebacks: folk, psychedelia, even prog have all, to a greater or lesser extent, been rehabilitated and made acceptable, even fashionable for a new generation of hipsters. Fusion, however, remains doggedly unacceptable, unfashionable, excluded from the party. Frankly, it’s easy to see why. While musical virtuosity is to be admired, fusion has never quite recovered from the stupendous gross-out extravagances it crested in the mid-70s, with its absurd displays of technique for its own sake and testosterone-fuelled, endurance-test solos that stretch the patience of even the most open-minded listener.
So, with all this in mind, it’s kind of interesting to see a young contemporary musician trying to do something fresh with the basic idea. For his second album under the Brewed by Noon banner, drummer Sean Noonan has pulled together various disparate musical, cultural, and geographical influences in a brave attempt to create a unique world-fusion. On Stories to Tell, Noonan fuses his own Irish folk heritage with Downtown New York hipsterism, Malian griot singing, overblown rock theatrics, and a dash of soul, coming up with a finished product that sounds much as you’d imagine an after-hours jam session at the United Nations to end up.
On the surface, the album seems mostly to deal in incongruity, flinging together these strangely disconnected elements and almost daring the listener to declare that the Emperor’s new clothes ain’t what they’re cracked up to be, that the fusion in progress simply doesn’t cut it. But the strange thing is that it works. It’s in these very incongruities that some nuggets of beauty lie. Perhaps the most striking and unfamiliar sound on the album is the voice of Malian griot — or ‘praise-singer’ — Abdoulaye Diabate: a high, soaring, straining, yearning, unremittingly spiritual sound, voiced in the little-known Bambara dialect of West Africa. It’s a sound that seems to stretch back generations to an ancient world where ancestors walk the earth with ghosts and unborn children, forming a bridge of lifetimes to the present day. It’s the kind of sound that normally only appeals to world music cognoscenti, but Noonan’s pulled the neat trick of teaming it up with Thierno Camara’s ebullient and slickly modern Afro-beat electric basslines, instantly catapulting Diabate into the modern world, where we’re forced to re-evaluate our reactions to this kind of musical tradition. Then, for an extra layer of disorientation, Noonan employs the services of Downtown Improv stalwarts, guitarist Marc Ribot and viola-player Mat Maneri, to overlay proceedings with a rough and gnarly layer of grit. It’s a gambit that, for the most part, works brilliantly. Ribot is on fire throughout, spitting out jagged, fiery, bleeding solos, while Maneri offers maudlin drones and microtonal peregrinations that constantly take the listener by surprise. Together they knock the smooth edges off the shiny production job and give the album a nicely serrated finish.
There are also elements that work less well. The tracks that draw upon Noonan’s Gaelic roots come over as slightly fey, misty-eyed evocations of an imagined Ireland peculiar to the imaginations of second or third generation Americans with Irish surnames — despite the authentic vocals of folk-singer Susan McKeown. Some of the attempts at stadium rock end up as unintentionally amusing parodies of melodramatic rock-opera that you need a PhD in Meatloaf Studies to fully appreciate, and Dawn Padmore’s thirstily impassioned soul vocals on the album’s prime clanger, “Pineapple”, are so ridiculously over the top as to be virtually upside down. However, these quibbles pale into insignificance in the face of the album’s stand-out track, “Scabies” — a super-heavy, guitar-trio, avant-jazz-rock monster with Ribot absolutely shredding it up and Camara’s bass letting loose great, funky elasticated ideas, coming on like Richard Bona sitting in with Scorch Trio.
Maybe there’s life in the idea of fusion yet. Maybe it’s time to start looking out for Return to Forever albums in second hand record stores, ready for the day that you can impress your hipster pals with your ahead-of-the-game prescience. In the meantime, Noonan’s keeping the idea warm for us, and it sounds like he’s loving every second of it.