Three from the Many Arms crew
I’ve been listening to a few amazing albums that have recently been released by members of Many Arms, whose “Missing Time” was included in my recent power trio review. Since then, the new s/t Many Arms record was released on Tzadik, which extends their muscular sound into even longer and more intense workouts than their previous efforts—it’s an essential 2012 album for sure.
But I want to focus on a few of the recent side project recordings coming out of this Philly trio’s wide range of creative interests. It seems there is a Many Arms-related record waiting to satisfy almost any mood. And there are even more projects than these three you can look forward to hearing, as I’ll detail at the end of these reviews.
Johnny DeBlase Quartet - Composites
Composites captures 2 long-form compositions by Johnny DeBlase, bassist for Many Arms and Zevious. These are surprising and complex compositions, rooted in jazz but constantly shifting in textures, dynamics, and harmonic vocabularies. The opening section of “First Form” made me think of a blend of 70s NYC loft jazz and Mahavishnu-esque fusion approaches, coming on strong and aggressive with an explosive head, followed by melodic interplay between guitarist Nick Millevoi and Joe Moffett. Millevoi briefly takes over the stage with some chromatically descending trill action, and then the surprises really begin: bassist DeBlase and drummer Dave Flaherty bring the dynamics down a few notches to set up the next scored passage, some beautifully evolving semi-chromatic melodies gently unfolding over a sizzling rhythm section. Then we get some sectional work within the group: trumpet and bass together, with a more direct and pointilistic drum approach instead of the hard bop textures that have come before, followed by very gentle guitar and austere bowed bass picking up some sul ponticello harmonic overtones. And then…
I don’t mean to get into a long play-by-play of these compositions—and the paragraph above only takes us about halfway into “First Form” anyway—but it’s difficult to illustrate just how wide these pieces reach, from meditative passages that embrace silence and a classical attention to detail that would be right at home on an early ECM release, to the loft scene and the later evolution of NYC downtown. And at moments of high intensity, I can’t help but think of how younger musicians, raised through the evolution of hardcore and metal genres, have been able to integrate the power of those styles without always having to make literal references like Naked City or something. In “Second Form” around the 7 minute mark, for example, there is a section with brutal drums and tremolo bass that could almost turn into a grindcore riff, but it acts instead as a more natural distillation of brutality that beautifully sets up some long-tone guitar passages.
Speaking of metal, the album cover, a photo of some twisting striations of light that remind me vaguely of the cover for bassist Bill Laswell’s solo debut “Baselines,” comes from Dysrhythmia/Gorguts guitarist Kevin Hufnagel. And the record also sounds very good, carefully captured with a dry, present sound that’s very listenable by Eric Carbonara at Nada Sound Studio in Philly. With impressive musicianship, a great balance of composition and improvisation, and compositions that take listeners on a consistently surprising and adventurous journey, “Composites” is highly recommended. There is a limited edition of 100 CDrs available now for the same price as the download edition on Bandcamp, so act soon if you want to snag a physical copy.
Bailly/Millevoi/Moffett - Strange Falls
Millevoi and Moffett, half of the DeBlase Quartet, join guitarist Alban Bailly (leader of another favorite avant-jazz band of mine, Inzinzac) on this recent release by Public Eyesore imprint Eh? records for a decidedly more free-improv setting than I’ve heard from the Many Arms camp yet. “Strange Falls” captures 8 improvisations by this trio, incorporating many extended techniques and effects. And unlike a lot of the free improv records I’ve been hearing lately, there are passages using recognizable clusters of notes, too: the overall emphasis is on soundscaping, with lots of breathing and scraping sounds from the subtle to the violent, but I must admit that I really like when projects like this incorporate pitched sounds.
Take the second track, “Panspermia,” for example. Almost 8 minutes in length, making it one of the longest tracks on this record, it leans heavily on taps, scrapes, glissando sounds, and electronic sounding pops running into an envelope filter, but the long trumpet tones in the introduction act as a nice anchor for the sounds evolving around them, and the scalar/chromatic guitar runs flowing near the center of the piece give shape and direction to the undulating, increasingly frenetic sounds building up alongside. When the dynamic level drops and the focus turns to relatively delicate sounds later, it feels like a useful context has been established for digging into the deeper nature of the abstract sounds. While I think this album will appeal primarily to those who are already into free improv and EAI, these fragmentary but frequent moments of pitched content give the album extra potential as a sort of “gateway drug” into free improvisation for folks coming from relatively more conventional jazz backgrounds, too. So jazzers beware: spend some time with “Strange Falls,” and you just might find yourself revisiting those Nate Wooley and Jack Wright records you bought but never quite “got” with a new ear.
I think my favorite track here is the pointillistic “Tungska,” with a great blend of out-jazz trumpet lines and short, fast punctuation from both guitars. The manipulations of unison notes in the following track “Star Rot” are super compelling, too. But the whole album hangs together very well, and it’s more of an album-length experience with track breaks for convenience to my ears. I should also mention that this is a great headphone record—most of the tracks feature generous stereo separation between the 2 guitars, with the trumpet mostly down the center of the stereo field, and it’s a lot of fun to feel the sounds darting and slithering back and forth between your ears.
Nick Millevoi - Black Figure of a Bird
I know I’ve mentioned before how much I like solo guitar, voice, and sax recordings in general—you can learn so much about a musician’s musical approach by what they’re highlighting in solo work. And among a category of recordings I’m already inclined to appreciate, Nick Millevoi’s ”Black Figure of a Bird,” recently released by the promising young label New Atlantis, is a real treat.
"Black Figure of a Bird" documents six compositions for solo 12-string electric guitar, employing several alternate tunings that make many of these compositions sound much bigger than solo efforts. I was solidly digging this album from the first track, "Warm Green Discs," which quickly introduces listeners to the best traits of Millevoi’s playing: a massive, slightly overdriven tone, smart phrasing with great accents to melodic lines through selective octaves and harmonization, a mature sensitivity to the full dynamic range of the instrument, and that pick technique! Melody notes absolutely jump off the pick even in the midst of "stirring" techniques that keep the harmonic cauldron bubbling beneath.
Compositionally, these are ambitious pieces, too. “Life in Ice,” for example, takes listeners into delicately cycling melodic patterns, rhythmically repeating dirges, and occasional Zorn or Chadbourne-like flourishes of noise. “Bruxer” is a short and wicked fast composition with an awesome tuning that allows Millevoi to sound like an overdubbed metric-harmonized Ocrilim track by himself.
But the two relatively gentler tracks deserve a special mention: album closer “Nothing Forms a Liquid” is a beautiful exploration of harmonics built on usually-impossible chords facilitated by alternate tuning. Here too the guitar tone becomes part of the composition, set with an overdrive that lets softer parts resonate with crystalline brilliance, while passages played with a harder attack take on a sharp, almost brittle tone. And I’m especially partial to “What Sunlight Does Make it Through,” the longest track on the album at 9 minutes, for mooring itself to a Lydian mode-based wash of beautiful chordal explorations, particularly in its introduction. I wish more people considered the emotional power that can be teased out of Lydian and its inherent juxtapositions between the “evil” tritone and the potential for a sort of “ultra-major” sound with both its leading tone and the upward resolution of that tritone. The piece evolves into a progressively complex harmonic territory, showcasing another aspect of Millevoi’s talents. Before hearing this record, I mostly thought of inventive melodic playing when I heard his playing, but these pieces show an even wider sphere of compositional and technical abilities.
The album art and packaging is beautiful, too, with mysteriously manipulated indoor/outdoor photo juxtapositions (and fittingly enough, a black bird) by Katie Rey. My only criticism of this record? At 25 minutes, it could be longer. I’d be delighted to sit through a double LP of music like this. Hopefully there is more on the way:
More Many Arms-related projects
Another Millevoi solo record (I think) is coming soon. Called “In White Sky,” keep an eye on his blog for more news on that, as well as a record that will include Ches Smith, Travis Laplante, and Ed Ricart entitled “Haitian Rail.” Millevoi also plays with Archer Spade and Electric Simcha.
Johnny DeBlase also plays bass in Zevious, an excellent band on Cuneiform that would surely appeal to anyone who digs Many Arms. Zevious is writing a new album right now, and hopefully we’ll hear a new record from their camp early next year…
I didn’t get a chance to cover any side projects by Many Arms drummer Ricardo Lagomasino in this review, but he’s a busy fellow as well: in addition to drumming for Joe Lally (Fugazi) in recent years, he’s also part of a great out-jazz duo Lagomasino/Fishkin, and he’s working in an interesting pop project called The Sea Around Us. And I’ll always remember seeing him play with Capillary Action, whose first “official” album, “So Embarrassing,” features him behind the kit.