Wednesday, July 08, 2020

CD Review: The MacroQuarktet - The Complete Night: Live at the Stone NYC

The MacroQuarktet
The Complete Night: Live at the Stone NYC
(Out Of Your Head)

I recently unearthed a copy of Discourse, the zine I sporadically published in the late '80s/early '90s. While it predominantly covered independent rock, the Spring 1990 issue had an interview with Tim Berne, which I lined up after calling New York directory assistant to find his number. During our talk Berne mentioned the moment on "Evolution of a Pearl," (on his then-current Fractured Fairy Tales album) when trumpeter Herb Robertson emitted a noise through his horn that sounded a little like a laugh and little like a moan of pain. "He just did that and we almost fell out. Hank [Roberts, cello] missed some entrance 'cause he was freaked out," Berne said. This might be the reason Robertson is credited as playing laryngel crowbar, in addition to trumpet and cornet, on the album.

The memory of that track came by while listening to The Complete Night, Live at the Stone NYC. Robertson and Dave Ballou are all about extended technique during the performances that make up this album. They played two sets there in June 2007 with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. Nothing was planned, everything was fair game and everyone plays with a lack of inhibition. Sometimes that results in some extremely abrasive high-pitched brass noise. At one point, Rainey toys with his hi-hat cymbal so it creates the scrape of metal on metal. There are also moment of heavy breathing through the horns and low guttural growls that sound like one of the horns is waking up after a long night of boozing.

The Complete Night isn't for casual listening. During one spin of  the first disc, Robertson and Ballou's hijinks burrowed deep under my skin and felt really annoying. Upon further investigation, perhaps knowing what was coming, a flow to the set became noticeable. The quartet works with dynamics and sonic attacks to make sure nothing - even the crazy technique - doesn't get overused. Plus there are moments when dynamics shift and oddball things surface, like an instrument that sounds like a guitar, minus the sound of fingers or a pick striking the strings. Along with the lack of being able to clearly tell Ballou from Robertson (though there are some clues), moments like this compel rather than repel deep listening.

The first disc of this set (the wilder one with the phantom instrument) was originally released in Europe in 2008 as Each Part A Whole on Ruby Flower. (That disc credits Robertson with electric megaphone, which could account for the phantom guitar noise, providing it's not Ballou's plastic hose.) The second disc is making its debut, and it includes some of the strongest moments of the whole set. After playfully dueling with one another, Ballou and Robertson come together with a long tone theme at one point, proving how attentive they are to each other's approaches. The space during the middle of the set recalls some open moments in AACM performances. Later, their chattering horns stop for a smooth transition into Gress' bowed bass. By the second set, the MacroQuarktet was a well-oiled machine. It's now hard to imagine hearing one disc without the other.

Although both sets each consist of a continuous performance, the discs break them up into bands, with titles that give a further look into the wit behind the music. Volume One features "Neuroplasticity" (in three parts), "Ducks & Geese...Or Rabbits" (in four parts, which might actually be an appropriate title) and "Basal D. Ganglia" (in three parts). Volume Two features only two different titles: "Crossing the Threshold)" (which covers five tracks) and "No Planet B" (two parts).  Following the breaks between tracks proves to be too much of a distraction while listening. Better to just imagine being at the old Stone for this evening, getting absorbed by the music.

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