Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Review: Megaphone Man: Live at the Tabernacle/Blue Canoe Records...










Megaphone Man are: Neal Fountain, bass, Jeff Reilly, drums, Bryan Lopes, tenor saxophone. Originating out of Athens, Georgia, they call themselves an 'avant garde and improvisational punk jazz trio.' Whooee... a lot of musical freight jammed uncomfortably into that description. But: after listening to their album; 'Live from the Tabernacle,' on the Blue Canoe label ... I realise how difficult it is to throw a convenient verbal rope over their music. 'Jazz,' fair enough – although they eschew the word on its own – wisely:

'Although all members shy away from calling themselves a jazz trio, their music contains full elements of jazz--and then some. "We all have wide varieties of music in our backgrounds," states Fountain, "so I think it best not to call ourselves a 'jazz band' per se.”' (From here...).

Yet: playing with faultless technique married to improvisational nerve and enough rhythmical flexibility and veering from the backbeat to edge into - and way through - 'jazz' territory. But qualified by their own hints at wider intentions – this ain't bebop and is not intended to be. 'Per se.' In the year 2008, this is hardly a problem – except for purists. To further unpick: 'Punk' – in the sense of going for it, hell for leather, crashing the boundaries, without fear, rather than in a more narrow confrontational sense. (Refer back to 'purist'). 'Avant garde?' Lineage of, maybe – fire music has been around a while now. Yet that is the point, perhaps – free jazz has never been truly assimilated into the wider music, is still troublesome for many and, more importantly, has evolved on a slightly separate track, while arguably never really losing sight of its earlier origins in collective traditional jazz – 'New Orleans' – blues, folk and gospel. In fact, it could be further argued that because it has grown into a broader church than many may recognise (due to circumstances of underground fate and critical blindness), a band such as Megaphone Man can truly lay claim to being members of the congregation via 'avant garde,' improvisational,' 'jazz' – and even 'punk.' At a stretch one could also argue that 'punk' had historical antecedents in the originating moves towards 'free jazz' in the fifties – Ornette, Cecil? And the aesthetic forged by Lester Bangs et al envisaged a righteous gathering that went from, Iggy, say, to Albert Ayler, via the electric voodoo of Miles Davis. Let alone the crossing lines that subsequently intersected on the Downtown New York scene of the 70's. A complicated business...

But Megaphone Man have made a striking album with 'Live at the Tabernacle.' By foregrounding the rhythms of funk and r and b, they are merely emphasising certain roots Рthe 'social music' continuum (as Miles might have said) Рupon which they lay their intricate, three-part dances and explorations. The bass holds the bottom and middle, giving plenty of spine and chordal thickening when necessary - although this is more textural than born of harmonic need Рerupting occasionally into higher registers. The tenor plays full-throated free-rolling lines with high energy and much élan while in the main sticking within a timbral range that does not veer off into extended overtonal screech and skronk. This is never abstract music, the beat is never far away... with a sharp pinch of the blues and r and b old skool honking when the spirit moves. The drums are fairly spartan, giving lots of space, hitting the two and four to groove and playing straight-up and free-falling where the lines dictate the approach needed. Less busy than on a lot of albums I have listened to recently Рrefreshingly so... One wonders if this is a deliberate strategy... Given the busy role of the bass, it would make sense...

Not afraid to rock out, they are also capable of spinning off into more complex 'free' interludes. The trick is to hide the joins – which they do successfully. And, for a three piece, they transcend any implicit instrumental limitations by offering a variety of approaches. Varying the lead, for example – on 'Razor Egg Hunt,' the tenor starts, repeating a relentless two bar phrase with a Monkian edge. On 'Recurring Nightmare,' 'Fat Gambling Liar' and 'Miles of Rust,' the bass opens. Offering much timbral variety throughout – mainly via the bass, with high, plaintive lines like a guitar, (note the beginning of 'Miles of Rust' especially - ethereal sustained chorused tones), straight four, thick velvet chording that flows into an organ-like sound at times, recalling those old tenor and organ combos. (Roots, y'all...). This flexibility of the electric bass role is one of the main keys to the success of this band, offering a wide palette of colours...

Most tracks start on the backbeat before moving off into freer territories – but one track demonstrates another approach. 'Recurring nightmare' opens on rolling drums and keening high register bass – a modal/Indian flavour to the tune. Tenor coming in on a repeated slurred-into C to ground the tonic and emphasise the almost-raga feel, eventually emerging to spar with the bass, some flying, sprightly saxophone here...

On the last track, 'Bubble Hat,' a jaunty, almost whimsical swagger over an odd, almost parodic, two-beat rhythm – they really stretch out, going from tenor solo backed by bass and drums into a three way conversation, bass running parallel with saxophone, drums giving lots of space, using sharp fills cunningly. Then another section with a different theme (again with a Monkian flavour) that breaks up into a free-for-all – the tenor (using echo/delay to complicate the line at one point) spinning urgent lines over minimal accompaniment that drops out occasionally for them to stand alone. Followed by bass soloing over busier drums now – fast and fluent. Then a section underpinned by an insistent bass drum pattern. To end on a well-recognised staple thumping bass/snare back beat pattern... The distance travelled and freedom demonstrated here stand as a paradigm for their overall musical achievement throughout this album... (Note: there is a large break in this track, which I assume is not intentional but a fault in the download as I checked the length on the web site - 17 minutes plus - is the second part an encore, perhaps?).


So: a band who move smoothly through the genres and their influences ('Frisell trio......Jarrett......Miles......Hendrix.......Trane.........Dead Classical Composers' according to the blurb on their MySpace page) while holding it all together under an identifiable - and original - fine-honed group style. The material is fairly minimal, (Bryan Lopes: 'Almost always built on a simple motif and then we expand... the original idea.' [From here...] ) but allows space to move and elaborate – there is an organic flow to each track, the improvising never seems grafted on. 'Live at the Tabernacle' demonstrates the collective blowing skills of Megaphone Man, to be sure, and stands as a snapshot of what must have been a great gig. I wonder what a studio session might produce... maybe Blue Canoe can oblige?

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