Thor's Rubber Hammer seems to be becoming the go to place for jazz in the underground. There was the totally slammin' first installment of Ecstatic Jazz Duos LP series last year with Talibam! and the absolutely most slaying Wasteland Jazz Unit stuff I've heard. Now Thor (actually Lars Gotrich) is back with the second Ecstatic Jazz Duos installment and an absolute monster of a CD-r by Bright Duplex.
If I gave out a best new artist award or something Bright Duplex would be the horse to bet on, cause from this vantage point they’ve got it pretty much locked up. The duo of Matthew Armistead on drums, percussion and clarinet and Vanessa Rossetto (The Mighty Acts of God) on viola/in, cello, percussion, electronics and field recordings. Just the instrument line-up alone is enough to get the salivary glands pumping. “Egg Harbor” says the first hello with grinding violin and snare devolving into a humming/whining clarinet/strings duet that ratchets up the tension while Armistead beats his percussive pallet with frustrated fury. The clarinet gets placed more centrally on “Luminous Pumpkin Sockets” which is always met by enthusiasm in my book, before long though the duo ends up in an acoustic drone passage. That passage becomes rather absorbing with epic gongwork, splinters of feedback and jangly bells. The duo lets lose with the reeds near the end which sounds wicked and on a dime they’re in hushed silence slowly creeping back into the daylight. “The Lady is Waiting” turns out some kind of bizarre, creepy horror movie jazz. Combining all the right frequencies to scare the shit out of me. The piece drifts along with a minimum of percussion; it’s mostly fueled by the vibrations supplied by the clarinet and strings. And when this thing heads for the climax, oh man, it is sensational. Clarinet pipes up for a few seconds leading into a huge swell of sound, really tremendous. “Motorcycle Goodbye” features violin in a more melodic role, sort of, cello also gets the spotlight briefly too. The thing that’s so strange about Bright Duplex is they have such control over dynamics, they can kind of “mute” the whole band leaving each instrument in a tense, straitjacketed state. Weird but incredibly effective. “Small Simulacra” in contrast, gets to roam a bit freer including an odd rhythmic pattern by Armistead. Rossetto creates a great bed/undertow of strings as well which slowly sucks the jam into some sort of crazy jazz vortex. “It’s Geese” also kicks off in more “straightforward” fashion. Creeping percussion, creepy violin, creepier clarinet all headed to some grimy jazz club on the eastside of Hell. The piece has an especially eerie spirit to it for a mere jazz jam, even hypnotizing in a way. A recording of a crowd of people crops up later which prompts clarinet and drums take a little well-earned alone time together. It’s hard to choose a favorite on a record like this but that could be it. “Church of Rosy Porky Pine” rides on grinding strings and rumbling drums before gliding to a halt. The hilariously apathetically-titled finale “Well Then” starts up with droning strings and mild free percussion. The piece feels like it’s about to lash out at any moment but manages keep things polite and noticeably more melodic than the rest of record due to Rossetto’s stringwork. All that makes for a great, unassuming topper. These guys are pretty spectacular, there’s no way this stuff was done totally live—there’s gotta be overdubs somewhere—but Strawberry Trust totally feels live though. Very vibrant, alive and masterfully executed. Furthermore, these guys have a sound all their own; I mean, name your favorite current underground jazz crew, chances are Bright Duplex sound different and, most likely, better than they do.
The second installment of the Ecstatic Jazz Duos series continues to expand the range of artists in its exclusive roster. Electric guitar/drums duo, I Heart Lung, takes the first side with three pieces. “Conflagration” is the longest, taking up the first half of the side. It begins rather un-jazzy with reversed guitar and the grinding of rusty cymbals until the guitar debuts the main melody and the drums follow suit, shaping up into a semi-free pattern. There are some relaxing moments of a mellow guitar melody and slight drum accents, actually my favorite part of the piece, before a return to the initial melody at the end of the track. “Grand Assembly Line of Retired Machinery” starts out a bit more fiercely with a mechanized split second guitar loop, which is backed by splashes of drums and guitar chords before turning to ambient drones for the rest of the track. The most bracing and best track of the side is “Axes Only,” which settles into a melody akin to that of the first piece, after the opening of slashing guitar and frantic drumming. I Heart Lung sound the most “ecstatic” here; they play with more ferocity and seemingly more purpose. Their foray within the more traditional areas of guitar-led jazz sounds more alive in this piece than elsewhere on their side. However, they’re at their absolute best when they’re at their most atavistic. As the piece nears its conclusion it reaches its peak of intensity when I Heart Lung takes to thrashing about frenetically creating a synergetic texture of aggression. It’s a pretty great ending.
Overall, this is a decent side. It’s obviously competently performed and features some great moments but I can’t help repeating that they don’t sound that “ecstatic” for most of their contribution, at many points I find myself wishing they would really go for it as they do at the end of their side. I’m no scholar of jazz, but what I Heart Lung is doing doesn’t really feel that new either unlike the work of the artists on the previous installment of Ecstatic Jazz Duos. I should also note though, that I tend to prefer reeds and/or brass-led jazz as opposed to guitar-led jazz.
DWMTG is a Thurston Moore-approved electric bass/percussion duo of Dale W. Miller and Tony Gordon and their side is comprised of ten untitled tracks. The first piece begins oddly enough with a duet between a bass guitar and a rubber ducky or some such squeaky toy. After many listens I’m still not sure what the hell to make of it. The next piece is even stranger with, possibly electronic, clicking percussion and percussive, “noteless” bass work. Things start to congeal on the third piece with slippery bass playing and skittering cymbal work. The fourth piece, as well, has weirdly burbling bass work and rustling drums. I like the textures that Gordon pulls out of his bass, because as far as I can tell there are no effects or anything and he makes some strange sounds. I can appreciate DWMTG’s textural miniatures (and their overall weirdness) though I think it’d be to their benefit to let loose a bit more and use dynamics to their advantage. A couple of the later tracks feature more confrontational vibes with both instruments creating thick webs of sounds and pushing those sounds much harder and to a fuller extent. The last couple pieces are louder, less sparse and, I think most importantly, get the blood flowing, the head nodding and the foot tapping.
The LP also features some of Christopher Cichocki’s best artwork; I particularly love the front cover which looks like a sketch of some barren, landscape despite it probably being a microscopic image of wood or something.
Both releases are still available but note that Strawberry Trust is limited to 100. Also, a suggestion to Thor, snap up Bright Duplex for a future edition of Ecstatic Jazz Duos right away! Those kids can't miss!