Tag Archives: Michael Manring

REVIEW – William Maxwell: ‘Cardinal Points’ album, 2001 (“a delicacy and poise John Williams would admire”)

26 Jul
William Maxwell: 'Cardinal Points'

William Maxwell: ‘Cardinal Points’

Of course, no American musicians ever bear grudges about the demand for fake country bands to fill America’s bars. Nor about the rules of economics and averages, which mean that most professional rock or jazz musicians have to spend a significant part of their career biting their lips while propelling a Formica hoe-down tune towards a beer-splattered dance floor.

William Maxwell’s composition, Bass-ically Country, has nothing to do with this. Nope. It must be a coincidence: the way he keeps pulling his multi-tracked bass guitar out from the cage of those diddly riffs and hilariously plodding walking-blues lines and firing it up into more interesting concepts (a snappy little Stanley Clarke line; a crashing feedback-drenched heavy-metal solo; a dawnlit ambient moment) only to have it yanked back into line and back into the walk.

For about four tongue-in-cheek minutes, you’re getting a portrait of Dreamy Bassist with Ideas locked in combat with Insensitive Band, losing most of the battles but not giving up on the war. Maxwell (generally found playing bass for pan-European/Celtic proggies Tempest) has obviously been there and done that, and is able to laugh at it. Inevitably, Bass-ically Country brings back memories of the late-’80s bass showman Stuart Hamm and his rollicking banjo-slap pisstakes. Some of the aforementioned Dreamy Bassist’s little lines are quite silly, after all, though the naiveté is charming.

In reality, Maxwell’s a much more thoughtful musician than this jokey sketch of bassline frustration suggests. As for dreaming… Well, while the sonic ambitions of his ‘Cardinal Points’ album are sometimes held back by budget (and by too much reliance on predictable synth presets), they’re still very much audible. Deploying his armoury of four-, five-, six- and eight-stringed basses (and backing himself up with some cosy keyboards and percussion), William sets out to explore a typically Western American breadth of music. Melodic electric jazz, New Age, funk-rock, Celtic and light prog influences all gel together. Even the dreaded country music is welcomed into the stew.

Though Maxwell shares Hamm’s taste for transposing classical music onto electric bass, he has a far greater understanding of his source material. His version of Scarlatti’s Sonata In D – baroque harpsichord music arranged for a choir of multi-tracked basses – is particularly impressive. It demonstrates a real understanding of both Scarlatti’s ecstatic mathematics and of that fussy enthusiasm that’s part of the harpsichord sound; while cunningly adding a smidgen of American swing (straight out of Chet Atkins’ Classical Gas). The gently blossoming study of Sweet Dreams (drawing on his early classical guitar training) sees Maxwell pluck a six-string bass with a delicacy and poise John Williams would admire.

Still, technique is a secondary matter on ‘Cardinal Points’. Despite Maxwell’s dexterity, he isn’t offering us a player’s album. He’s as happy when playing a child’s melody or chord wash on synth as he is executing twiddly turnarounds on bass. His true interest is in composition and arranging – his basses are dragooned into illustrating his musical ideas, not flying along on top of them. Rather than pursuing The Great Solo, he spends his time on constructing latticeworks of harmonic chimes, or on an agreeable rumble of conversing fretless and fretted instruments.

The Gold Rush is one of the only moments where Maxwell gives in to any boy-racer super-soloist desires. Fortunately, he does this with jollity instead of arrogance; building himself a piece of music full of skipping strums and curvy chromed planes of distorted EBow sustain, which bounces like an off-road vehicle. Rich Bradley injects a shot of serious jazz, providing a burst of antsy soprano sax (Dave Liebman style) to explode over Maxwell’s heavy popcorn slap. More frequently, ‘Cardinal Points’ sits happily in that comfortably idealised pastoral-prog idiom inspired by bands like Happy The Man or Montreux. Although Carol From An Irish Cabin (its watercolour synths dampening a politely romantic fretless bass) is a step too far towards Windham Hill wallpaper, both The Big Bird and Early Morning Rising follow the path more fruitfully; working in folk melodies and pinches of fuzzy overdriven jazz-fusion to their relaxed, innocent arrangements.

It’s sweet, but not as interesting as the experiments in sparseness, space and counterpoint elsewhere. On Not Tonight I Have A Headache, delicate layers of bass harmonics, thumb pianos and gongs inter-balance each other in a chime of mechanisms; while more basses brew up a blurred but rather beautiful dialogue of growls and stoned-cat noises to rise up behind it. Every Time takes the same kind of chiming bell effects and applies it to a gentrified jazz ballad (with an elastically expressive fretless melody to the fore).

Best of all, there’s the stately (and ever-so-slightly-psychedelic) jazz-rock march of Cardinal Points itself, demonstrating just how much Maxwell prioritizes composing and realizing music over spotlight hogging. Few bass soloists would share their best piece with another top-drawer bassist, let alone two (Harmony Grisman’s sidekick Tami Pallington and the increasingly legendary Michael Manring). Even fewer would make the piece dependent on the subtle collective interaction of all three musicians, rather than on lick-trading.

But that’s exactly what happens here. Pallington builds a silvery canopy of deftly clanging harmonics over Maxwell’s rich twilight orchestration, clarinet-style EBow lines and trick-stepping rhythm. Manring’s own response to Maxwell’s musical hospitality is to turn out one of his finest ever signature melodies – a musing solo slithering luxuriously around the fretboard like a stretching cat in a sunbeam, extending notes into passionate vapour trails via his own EBow. A generous response, it’s one of the high points of a generous album.

William Maxwell: ‘Cardinal Points’
Maxtrix (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R only album
Released: 2001

Buy it from:
Best obtained second-hand, or enquire via William Maxwell homepage.

William Maxwell online:
Homepage

Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’ album (“unsettling beauty with an element of wild and joyous fear”)

20 Nov
Cloud Chamber: 'Dark Matter'

Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’

A cloud chamber is a device for measuring the existence of the intangible. Physicists use them – mapping out the paths that subatomic particles trace through a vapour, studying nuclear reactions and inferring the presence of other particles. There’s something about that last bit I particularly like: inferring the existence of something. Something you can only detect, or believe in, by seeing how it affects something else.

Cloud Chamber (with the capitals) is an improvising group allowing the convergence of several other exotic particles – these being guitarist Barry Cleveland, space-age bass guitarist Michael Manring, cellist Dan Reiter, percussionist Joe Venegoni and Michael Masley, who coaxes sounds out of a more esoteric set of instruments (panpipes, gobek, gobeon and the cymbalom dulcimer). Having come together as part of the Lodge improv evenings in Oakland, California following stints with employers as diverse as Michael Hedges, the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, Ry Cooder and Garbage (plus exploits in journalism and dance theater), Cloud Chamber’s collective past suggests that what they’re likely to condense together will be suckling blissfully on an inspiration of mind and music, devoid of barriers.

More accurately, outside of barriers. When listening to improvised music you’re all too often shoved back on your arse by the force of several musicians protesting their individuality as forcefully as possible, and playing off each other with all the subtlety of dodgem cars. Cloud Chamber, on the other hand, have nothing to do with ego. The fivesome’s music emerges like the interplay of ocean currents; a process of continual organic movement to which the musicians respond as if they’re no more than implements of a guiding force.

And that’s how it needs to be – the compound music that Cloud Chamber produce is as precarious and demanding as improv demands, but to release the life in that music it’s necessary for the musicians to let it play through them. Manring (a driving and devastatingly gifted bassist, as his solo records and work with Sadhappy testifies) keeps any hero-glitter under a bushel of humility here. He takes a step back, becoming just one of many element in the condensate: no more dominant then Reiter’s troubled, graceful cello or Venegoni’s poised rattlebag. Cleveland lurks in the background with his chameleonic guitar (playing a skeletal pattern of notes, a swarm of bees, a steel-shack sound, or an unknown language). Masley strokes and strikes gorgeously glassy shard-notes out of his cymbalom with his bowhammers and thumb-picks.

Patterns and presences take shape out of nothingness, drift around on the edge of perception, then suddenly and deeply solidify, impressing themselves on you as if they’ve been there for years. Half-familiar fragments of music (bits of Eastern European string quartet, Chinese and Asian music, a riff from King Crimson’s The Talking Drum) reveal themselves with an enigmatic smile while they’re well on the way to becoming something new.

This is also very beautiful music: though it’s a strung-out, unsettling beauty with an element of wild, joyous fear. The exquisite Blue Mass manifests itself like light twisting through a stained-glass prism, anchored on Reiter’s perplexing, precariously emotional cello calls above which the group fashion a soft, high night-sky of singing steel sounds. Radiant Curves is all looping contrails.

On Solar Nexus, singing bass guitar and cello interweave as Masley plucks and bows his cymbalom overhead: Cleveland’s guitar flies in out of left-field over popping, sliding, shadowy bass shapes, and everything ends in glittering, mirror-surfaced screams. As a listener, you become increasingly spooked and enchanted at the presences these sounds suggest. It feels like being stalked by the Easter Island statues in a swirling fog; or like hearing the sudden ring of an unknown voice in the haunted wind that cuts through high-tension wires overhead.

This disquietude doesn’t come from conflict. These musicians don’t battle each other. The thoughtful interview they provide in the booklet, and the watchful grace they exhibit in their interaction, amply proves the opposite. But something in the music that comes out of their alliance seems to suggest a rapt, fearful awe at the size and diversity of the cosmos; and that’s not just in the astronomer’s titles which the pieces sport.

Some music changes the way you see the world, and this is a full hour’s helping. Not so much a Big Music as a small music, something retreating into the details and filaments of unconfirmed suspicions. This could be in the rhythmic imperative of the baleful four-note Pink Floyd-ian riff in The Call, worried at by the rat-scurrying strings, space-gypsy fiddling and Manring’s anxious Jaco-in-retreat fingerwork. Or it could be in the cat’s-cradle of scrapes and rockets on cello, mingling with cymbalom mantras, on Full of Stars. Here, a tangle of miscellaneous alien squawks is surrounded by collapsing glassy percussion, fractured-tree bass noises and Cleveland’s guitar-talk, finally washing up on the shores of Chinese classical music.

The most obvious Cloud Chamber ever get is on the sketchy world-funk of Dithyramb. This is like an exploded version of the fake ethnography crafted by Byrne and Eno on ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, or by Rain Tree Crow, and passes into a high, stretched-out passage of cello and bass sustain. Travelling alongside, Cleveland’s mounting guitar journeys from sketching out cirrus cloud to lovely Vini Reilly-esque pointwork. But this is a rare moment of innocence and cheer. Much more characteristic is the air-on-a-G-string improv that bedrocks Ursa Minor, setting up tensions between pluck and sustain, between the percussive cello and phased, rapping bass; between the ominous restlessness of free open passages and the querulous, demanding blue notes of the cello solo.

The final (and untitled) experiment leaves no tone resolved – winding cello, seagull distortions and an irregular, antsy wash of noise. You’re left feeling that Cloud Chamber have dismantled the scenery between us and the infinite, leaving us losing track of time, of solidity. Falling through the world. Suddenly turning around to find the whole colossal starry wonder of the universe at your back, and thrilling with a terrible flinch of delight.
Somehow Cloud Chamber are picking up on something that most of us miss: revealing something unseen by reacting to it. Hearing ‘Dark Matter’, you feel as if you’ve been allowed to watch the ambiguous wonder of something changing, and changing decisively – a presence inferred – and that you’ve been allowed to be part of it.

Science, or magic? Doesn’t matter. Live within it.

Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’
Supersaturated Records, SUPERSATURATED 001
CD/download album
Released: 11th November 1998

Get it from:
CD Baby or iTunes.

Cloud Chamber (Barry Cleveland) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

ATTN:Magazine

Not from concentrate.

Xposed Club

improvised/experimental/music

I Quite Like Gigs

Music Reviews, music thoughts and musical wonderings

Make Weird Music

Because 4 chords aren't enough

A jumped-up pantry boy

Same as it ever was

PROOF POSITIVE

A new semi-regular gig in London

We need no swords

Static and debris. Skronk and wail. This is music?

:::::::::::: Ekho :::::::::::: Women in Sonic Art

Celebrating the Work of Women within Sonic Art: an expanding archive promoting equality in the sonic field

Ned Raggett Ponders It All

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Headphone Commute

honest words on honest music

Yeah I Know It Sucks

an absurdist review blog

Pop Lifer

Waiting for the gift of sound and vision

Archived Music Press

Scans from the Melody Maker and N.M.E. circa 1987-1996

The Weirdest Band in the World

A lovingly curated compendium of the world's weirdest music

OLD SCHOOL RECORD REVIEW

Where You Are Always Wrong

Fragile or Possibly Extinct

Life Outside the Womb

a closer listen

A home for instrumental and experimental music.

Bird is the Worm

New Jazz: We Search. We Recommend. You Listen.

Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

eyesplinters

Just another WordPress.com site

FormerConformer

Striving for Difference

musicmusingsandsuch

The title says it all, I guess!

%d bloggers like this: