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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

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