Sunday, January 07, 2018

LP Reviews: Greg Goodman, John Gruntfest & Derek Bailey Return on the Beak Doctor

John Gruntfest & Greg Goodman
In This Land All the Birds Wore Hats and Spurs

Derek Bailey & Greg Goodman
Extracting Fish-Bones from the Back of the Despoiler

(Beak Doctor)

It's tempting to compare In This Land All Birds Wore Hats and Spurs to a box set from Mosaic Records. Although it's single album, it comes on a beautiful 12X12 box, assembled with love and care, much like the elaborate Mosaic sets. A 12X12 four-page booklet features pictures and credits. Another insert features thumbnail reproductions of other releases on the label. If that wasn't enough, each of the 100 limited edition releases includes a painting by John Gruntfest, signed by the artist, as well as an additional insert with thumbnails of all 100 paintings.No wonder a ribbon is attached on the inside.

Of course, brothers and sister, this ain't no Mosaic. By a long shot.

To understand the Beak Doctor imprint means going back to 1978. Pianist Greg Goodman, saxophonist Larry Ochs and guitarist Henry Kaiser co-founded Beak Doctor/Metalanguage Records that year to spotlight international improvisers, among them Fred Frith, Evan Parker and the ones on these two releases. It was the first independent label of its kind on the West Coast devoted to free improvisation, taking a cue from Bailey and Parker's Incus label and acting in tandem with Horace Tapscott's Nimbus West label as well as the New York-based Parachute label.

The last Beak Doctor album appeared in 2003, by which time the label had transitioned to CD releases. These two new albums find them going back to vinyl, with digital downloads available with the package. Both feature artwork by Jean de Bosschère, which evokes Edward Gorey, though these come from the 1920 work The City Curious, pre-dating Mr. Gorey.

In This Land All the Birds Wore Hats and Spurs begins with a look back at Beak Doctor's early days (side one comes from performances in 1984 and 1986), before it jumps ahead to more recent times (side two was recorded in 2008). John Gruntfest is credited as playing tenor saxophone, but the tone of his horn and the way the low notes resonate really sounds more like an alto. Goodman plays "every thing else" [sic], which in his case means piano, playing the inside by hand occasionally in addition to striking the keys.

"Pure Mind" begins in a minimal, tranquil mood. Goodman lets a pedal note drone work hypnotically while Gruntfest builds simple but engaging melodies over it. "Great Bird" begins more casually. Goodman's upper register notes glisten and his partner casually moves in and out. The way the pianist varies the rhythm of his basic notes does evoke birds in flight. Halfway through the 16-minute track,the meandering aspect is replaced by more focus. Goodman moves down a few octaves, guiding some stronger ideas from Gruntfest, with the piano even answering him on a few.

Of the two players, Gruntfest has also worked as a poet and visual artist. That back story is good to keep in mind while perusing the extensive notes on the album. Perhaps this is just free improvisation with thoughts such is "There really is no reason to doubt there is no reason to doubt," added afterwards with a chuckle. (I checked my typing and that's how it appears.) Or maybe Side Two's three-act title piece is actually an opera with a story line and a complete score that "cannot reasonably be presented." The long-winded aspect of the booklet is a bit much, but it makes me think of equally long-winded notes on other free improv albums that go into ridiculous non-musical, universal detail to explain why the sounds on the disc are not noise but something more... important. Remember that, I appreciate the lighter tone a little more.

As far as the three "acts" on side two are concerned, the relaxed mood heard earlier is replaced by a bit more freedom. In a revealing moment, Gruntfest adopts the tone of a 1920s style jazz saxophonist, tart with big vibrato at hand, though it's easy to miss due to its brevity. Elsewhere he sounds ready to cut loose with wild squonking, especially in "Act III" where he toys with overtones. Goodman uses the strings of the piano for some metallic percussion, he also rumbles down the low end of the keys and plucks the insides as well. While things get wilder during these tracks, they also feel like they have more forward momentum. The duo also has a knack for stopping right at a climax, when there might be a temptation to get even wilder. That's discipline. That's also a way to chart their growth since the '80s, I suppose.

Extracting Fish-Bones from the Back of the Despoiler comes in a heavy cardboard album cover, rather than a box, but the black and while layout is the same, with a de Bosschère illustration and credits on the back. The music was made at a 1992 performance in Eugene, Oregon by Goodman and guitarist Derek Bailey. The back cover describes the two 20-plus minute tracks as "two sides that, while specifically titled, move around, arrive, and depart differently on occasion." If you listen closely, that's true.

This time the pianist is credited for objets d'intérieur, and he does spend a good deal of time inside the frame of the 88s, extracting sounds comparable to vibes, harp or guitar, even getting a great boing effect possibly from the use of a slide. He's not opposed to chords either, playing some tentative notes when Bailey pulls back from the melee.

Virtually any Derek Bailey release can be considered a wild ride, and Fish-Bones is no exception. The guitar sounds that open the album, with no sustain, sound dissonant and atonal, but so perfect at the same time. He never stops for air during the first six or seven minutes, but the ideas keep flowing from his instrument in great detail. When the dynamics eventually shift, it sounds like there could be some bits of composition happening here. Or it could be that Goodman knows what kind of harmony and embellishment to put forth. Whatever might be happening, the rapport between never flags. Even during moments that seem like Bailey and Goodman are trying to figure out what happens next, the knowledge of a payoff keeps things alive.

Along with the attention to detail that comes with both of these albums, it should be noted that both of the 180-gram records are pressed well too. At a time when off-center vinyl is, sadly, a distinct possibility, these two slabs play smoothly.

The Beak Doctor is in. Pay a visit.

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