Sunday, August 16, 2015

CD Review: Kris Davis Infrasound - Save Your Breath

Kris Davis Infrasound
Save Your Breath
(Clean Feed)

The cover of Save Your Breath features an underwater diver standing at the bottom of a body of water, bubbles emanating from their helmet, looking a bit like smoke. The image offers a rather sly take on the title, which in this case acts as a suggestion to the person in the diving suit.

The album's title track, which closes the program, last nearly 15 minutes, with the first two-thirds of it recreating the natural sounds that might be heard by the person in the picture. Long notes flow along in waves, gently and quietly, coming from Gary Versace's organ and Nate Radley's guitar. It could easily pass for a release on the space rock/post-rock imprint Kranky Records. Davis's piano and Infrasound's clarinet section slowly make their entrance at the halfway mark, with no one disturbing the waves. Like a few other tracks, this one requires a quick use of the volume knob. With three minutes to go, a sleepy rubato theme floats to the surface (sorry I couldn't resist), played by the clarinets.

While the setup sounds interesting, "Save Your Breath" is actually something of a letdown after a strong set of compositions from an equally strong, unique band. At the same time it doesn't detract from the rest of it, since the four preceding tracks all come in around 10 minutes a piece, holding up the rest of the album. And then there's the subject of who's playing here, which gives Infrasound a lot of its heft.

Ben Goldberg, Oscar Noreiga, Joachim Badenhorst and Andrew Bishop all play B-flat clarinet on the album. Bishop doubles on contrabass clarinet, while the other three double on bass clarinet and Goldberg also adds contra alto clarinet. Along with Davis, Versace and Radley, Jim Black's drums round out the group. The album was mixed by Ron Saint Germain, who works with rock bands and had a hand in albums by Sonic Youth and Bad Brains. His work adds a more visceral quality to the music. Without a bassist, Versace's organ pedals handle the low end and they can pass for a real bassist. The clarinets have an added muscle as well, whether Bishop is roaring through his massive contrabass contraption or Noriega is wailing on the much smaller B-flat cousin.

Two of the tracks were originally recorded by Davis on different trio sessions. "Union Forever" begins quietly, serving almost as an introduction to the octet, which rises into an anthemic theme before closing out the way it began, with a quick snaky line. The other remake, "Whirly Swirly," also has a snaky quality, in its bass line, over which Radley plunks out lines that recall punk-jazz guitarist Joe Baiza, while the rhythm stops and starts in wild fits.

Like a few of the pieces "Whirly Swirly" almost seems like a self-contained suite, which goes through slightly structured  sections and free sections. In this case, Badenhorst leads the pack with a growling clarinet solo. Beneath him, some ominous organ and contrabass clarinet image of the Loch Ness Monster waking up. (When that image popped up, I hadn't thought about continuing the underwater theme. It just fit. But Davis has described this album as the sound of a "living, breathing animal," so I'm not too far off.) A slow, written melody takes shape after five minutes, getting heavier and more dissonant as it moves to a climax, amidst more bass clarinet shrieks.

"The Ghost of Your Previous Fuckup" has a similar free-blowing-to-structure-to-crescendo direction to it, this one being the sole piece in which Davis gets to take her own solo. While her spotlight may be comparatively brief, her shots up the keyboard, combined with the leadership on this whole album, are enough to leave a strong impression. The final track might not be as rewarding as what preceded it, but maybe it can act more as a comedown.

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