I want to write this while my sinuses can still feel it, for my earplugs were even so terrified that they bore through my systems and numbed my senses. Last night was absolutely the loudest night I've heard at Elastic Arts, and probably the loudest, most aggressive jazz show I've ever seen. That Burning Tree and Dead Neanderthals were bookended by Ben Billington/Mark Shippy/Daniel Wyche and Toupee is effective commentary on the flexibility and form of Chicago's outsider/experimental/punk triad. My sinuses disagree, and I'm blessed to experience this internal contradiction of both knowing that I need to go to more shows, while facing the physical reminders of my eardrum limits.
First, I was overjoyed to watch one of my friends play with one of my favorite guitarists ever, if only so that I can carry a torch of jealousy forever. Daniel Wyche and Mark Shippy both played extreme modulated/synthesized guitar to the relentless and unforgiving scatters of Ben Billington. The effect was unclassifiable, which turned out to be one of the best kinds of confrontational sets. Last night, unfortunately, I only was able to say to Daniel "that set was bananas" as the curator looked for Dead Neanderthals before their set; that was the extent of my comprehension last night. However, as the extended technique / physical limitations of those European reed&drum duos sank in, it occurred to me that Wyche, Shippy, and Billington might have approximated the same effect with their instruments. Billington sat behind his kit stabbing anything he could get his hands on, as Shippy was arrested for pummeling a poor Fender tweed amp with as loud a processed signal as he could find. The range on Shippy's effects swept harmonized wackiness alongside physical, percussive reverb slams, while Wyche complemented his mate with lightning trips around his fretboard. Wyche himself was riding his Moog synthesizers and a set of standalone pedals, too, at one point losing all the bones in his body to manipulate a theramin (?) through his guitar cord. I don't know what crimes this trio committed in a previous life, but surely their souls are bound through eternity by some righteous takes on rhythm, shredding, and atonality. Tweet me @spectivewax in about a week to see if I have more to say about this set, because it was a range of improvisation that was difficult to confront and process, which I suspect is exactly how the trio wanted it.
I will say this: one of my favorite aspects of improvised sets are these moments of accidental / incidental / momentary grooves. One of the ways to comprehend or process this set is to think about the moments where Billington slowed his attack and changed his pace, or Shippy shifted from shredding to slagging, or Wyche indulged in the wetness of his signal. There was not a single gimmicky moment, as each player showcased their chops through a complete absence of conventional playing. Thank you, eardrum assault #1.
Eardrum assaults #2 and #3 came from Burning Tree and Dead Neanderthals, in that order. Both duos played with reeds and drumsets, and I believe both reeds were saxophones of one sort or another (I don't know if they have different saxophones in Europe, but if someone had told me that someday you'll be able to grow an amazing beard and use absurd, endurance-stretching breathing techniques if you keep playing saxophone, I would have endured all those early lessons of "When the Saints Go Marching In" with glee and anticipation).
Both duos might be described as aggressive, free, progressive, endurance-testing jazz, of the sort that American audiences who dig Many Arms, New Atlantis Records, etc., would appreciate. However, for their relatively similar elements, both duos played off completely different areas of their instrumentation. Burning Tree was much more abstract than Dead Neanderthals, as it seemed their reedist was using his lungs to their greatest extreme, producing an amazing, unending squeal for, oh, 15 minutes? Against this airy, high frequency attack, the drummer scattered across different beats, in a very playful manner. It was impossible to tell if he was losing the beat or merely changing it, which is an excellent trick to play on an audience that is fixated on the hard-blowing reed. This is not a knock or a criticism, but simply a recognition that closely-appreciating improvised music is difficult because it toys with the listener's expectations and sense of boundaries; instead of clinging to the pleasant security of a beat, the drummer skirted the outer edges as effectively as the reed.
Dead Neanderthals attacked the audience from a different angle, as their set appeared to be more "compositional" than "improvised" (I could be completely wrong about this). Anyhow, after the abstract reedplay, Dead Neanderthals created a series of droning cyclicals through their reed, this time appearing in a much larger saxiphone (baritone?). To accompany these notes, the drummer sticked to one pattern or box of beats, which isn't to say that the beats were predictable as much as they were more recognizable or "secure." The listener could cling to these grooves as the saxophone switched registers, closing the set by dropping to the bass-end, in what I presume is the European equivalent of switching on the hydraulics ("and if I hit the switch / I can make the asssssss drop"). This closing sequence proved an effective crescendo, as though the duo saved energy to throw-it-down with complete abandon to close their set. As the absolutely PACKED audience -- that room was packed to the rafters! -- cheered with delight, the saxophone was raised overhead as a tribute to free jazz international superstardom. We all sacrificed our ears to this loud ass explosion, but the tumultuous sets were worth it.
Dead Neanderthals and Burning Tree ultimately prove that the range and potential of free jazz is endless, so long as one explores technique and also takes endurance to the total fucking brink of exhaustion. For their near collapse from breathing so hard, I salute both Burning Tree and Dead Neanderthals. Thanks for an unforgettable night.
Just in case you thought it was finished, Toupee jumped onstage to close the night, exhibiting an astonishing range of control over their chaotic lyrics and wide-ranging vocal deliveries. Punk rock proved to have more limits than free jazz last night, but this is not a negative thing: Toupee brandish those expectations by building muted, lulled passages that extend trustworthiness to the audience, just as they simultaneously blitz the audience with a full metamorphosis of voices and masks. Singer Whitney began the night on bass, but as their set digressed into darker and heavier material, she handed off her bass to engage with the crowd on her microphone. Churning about through sheets, bananas, masks, and carrots, Whitney shrieked, hollered, and restrained her voice into any form necessary, as varying trios of guitar/guitar/drums and guitar/bass/drums built from controlled, muted beginning to wide-open noise. I cannot convey enough how dynamic this band played: at times, their fine-tuned, modulation guitar muting provided a clear background for the vocals to succeed, while others the band opened their approach to compete with and intensify the vocal deliveries. Punk can be many things, but Toupee's strength lies in their ability to play on the slightest bit of familiarity while they seduce the listener into their world. Their delivery shows that they control every moment, which ironically allows them to produce blistering attacks that can be confrontational and fragile.
Hearing a raucous punk set next to two jazz sets that traced extreme limits and loudness of acoustic instrumentation, as well as an all-out blast of noise, ultimately upheld a constellation of freedom between various musical forms. There is no need for any bullshit theories about the connections between punk and jazz, or the explorations of total freedom in punk versus total freedom in jazz. Obviously there are differences in technique and delivery that separate each of these "genres." The triumph between these forms is in the execution and their adjacent delivery: that one can actively suspend orthodoxy in favor of exploration, love, and challenging listening.
Photo by Daniel Wyche (I hope it's okay I used your packed audience photo). If transparency matters to you, I have written for Moniker Records, but Toupee are still amazing and everything I said is true, because why would I lie to you?
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