Rhys Chatham: Hard Edge
(The Wire Editions: 9002-2)
Rhys Chatham (trumpet), Lou Ciccotelli (percussion), Gary Jeff (bass guitar, electronics), Gary Smith (guitar), Pat Thomas (guitar, electronics)
Marsh/Franklin/Crowther: Shell of Certainty
Steve Franklin (keyboards), Tim Crowther (guitar, guitar synth), Tony March (drums)
"Fusion" was a brave concept, but it's a word that, like its contemporaries "radical feminism" and "", has virtually become a term of abuse, one notch up from "progressive rock" on the scale of avant garde non-u descriptors. Well, here are two groups fearlessly re-opening that old case and asking, "Fusion: Can it be any good?"
Of course, everyone knows that fusion could be good when it wanted to. Groups like Larry Coryell's Eleventh House, not to mention critical avatars like Electric Miles and Early Mahavishnu, were good, awfully and undeniably good. It's not just about capturing the raw energy of rock and injecting it into jazz, and it certainly isn't always just a matter of making improvised music more accessible by watering it down.
Take Rhys Chatham's disc, which starts horribly but soon settles down into a drum-n-bass-fuelled psychedelic vibe. Yes, it's terribly 1996 (or whenever) and it's much more accessible with the rattling, repetitive beatz and screaming guitar solos than it would be without them, but it's not completely shallow stuff either. It has that murky haze which much down-dirty fusion of yesteryear had. Given the directions Miles was going in before he died, we'd be very lucky indeed if he'd made a record as interesting, edgy and unresolved as this one had he survived until today.
There are fun bits, too, like the Latin rhythm which creeps into "Dots" and threatens to turn the track into a mu-ziq-style qu-easy listening tribute, or a tabla sample on "The Boiler" which, perhaps deliberately, recalls "On the Corner". Chatham isn't the most innovative of trumpet players, but he has a lot of Miles in his gestural, sometimes offhand approach which works perfectly in this setting. Smith is hardly the guitarist he seems to think he is, being something of a Vernon Reid (great on paper, disappointing in the ears), but he contributes to the overall sludge which this record very ably sloshes around in. Hard edged maybe, but the whole thing feels suitably rusted and mucky, with none of the gleaming polish of the West Coast.
Marsh/Franklin/Crowther could hardly be more different. They're a live, free improvising trio who just happen to use electronic and amplified instruments for their sound. This is a much more jazzy and much more free-improvised set, although the connection with work that guitarists like John Abercrombie were doing in the early 70s is still very strong.
March and Franklin have worked with a role-call of British free jazzers and improv merchants. Together, they make a boiling texture into which Crowther inserts his twiddly but thoughtful guitar. Much of this is extremely busy music, but it rarely flounders, and when the trio goes for a more aerated style, as on the alarmingly-entitled "Lemon Squealer", they strongly recall the "Larks Tongues in Aspic" period of King Crimson, with its spaced-out atonal jams.
It's not really meaningful to compare these two discs, but there's plenty to contrast. Chatham's set hammers along under the steam of high-velocity drum samples, while Marsh plays a far more flexible, free jazzy card. Aside from Chatham's trumpet, and occasional hot licks from Smith, "Hard Edge" goes for texture above note choice; Franklin and Crowther like to work with notes and bounce melodic and harmonic ideas around the place. They play live, and stress that there are "no overdubs", whereas Chatham's record is in part a studio construction. It fits in with The Wire's idea of what makes a record contemporary; Marsh and Co work with an idea of instrumental performance which you can find either antiquated or time-tested, depending on how you feel about that sort of thing. Both have their own pleasures, of course.