Jonathon LaMaster / violin, guitar, vocals, Michael Bullock / bass, James Coleman / theremin, Creed Drew / guitar, Keiko Higuchi / vocals, trombone, radio, Greg Kelly / trumpet, one track only, Bill T Miller / sampler, Tatsuya Nakatani / drums, Kory Sylvester / electronic drums, one track only, Vic Rawlings / cello, banjo, sarangi, Robin Amos / synth, Larry Coar / drums, Michael Knoblach / drums, Steve LaMaster / alto sax, one track only, Roger Miller / guitar, Zak Sherzad / reeds, Elliott Sharp / guitar, one track only
Saturnalia String Trio with Daniel Carter
Jonathan LaMaster / violin, Vic Rawlings / cello, sarangi, Mike Bullock / bass, Daniel Carter / reeds, flute, trumpet, Andrew Barker / drums, one track only
The string trio release is a 7-inch EP; the CD documents two very different studio sessions from 1996 and 1997. The thing is, the name “Saturnalia” doesn’t seem to refer to anything very specific; there are three entirely different lineups here, liberally seasoned with guest players of all kinds, the only common thread being Mr LaMaster himself. While that doesn’t help us to tag Saturnalia with a neat little description like, I don’t know, “jazz-rock improv postmodernists”, it certainly makes for intruiging listening.
The first thing that strikes you on hearing these performances (at least if you listen to a lot of experimental music) is how different the tracks all are. The pieces are identified as “improvised”, which of course means many things to many people, but if there’s no compositional element here than there’s certainly an intention to develop and work with riffs, repeated ideas and stable, distinctive textures. This produces something very likeable — maybe not so single-mindedly rigorous as some performances which doggedly avoid repetition, but much more accessible and just as interesting.
The CD’s first set, “Autumn Equinox”, is composed of fairly spare tracks with only a handful of the listed musicians playing at any one time, and considerably leavened by the excellent Keiko Higuchi’s vocals. Like many avant garde singers, she likes to move between a variety fo styles, liltingly lovely on “Evening at the Interplanetary orchestra”, alternately lounge-jazzy and monstrously deranged on “Vulcan Martini, or…”.
This appproach reflects that of this group as a whole; they’re eclectic, but within their own confines. “Bottle of Ripple?” is a classic case of cut-n-paste postmodernism, seeing a trashy Status Quo version of Captain Beefheart collide with folky free improv and segueing into “Interlude for Re-Departure”, a 25-second death-out which finds time to insert a country parody between the crushing guitar work.
Elsewhere, the group are less prone to aping other styles; they seem to suggest generic sounds rather than quoting or pastiching. It’s hard to explain how “Barrage Collage” manages to avoid being just a hip-hop parody, but it does; the wildstyle scratching, collaged samples and noises sound like nothing other than free improvisation, and the references are transformed and made more oblique without being thrown away. Particularly worthy of mention here is Bill T Miller’s great sample work. It’s billed as “live sampling”, but he has a battery of film score snatches, and an extended piece capturing Billy Graham dealing most uncomfortably with the subject of extra-marital sex.
The second half of the CD, “Winter Solstice”, is as different as you’d expect it to be given that none of the same musicians appear except LaMaster and Rawlings (for two tracks). On the whole, it sounds something like an authentic prog rock outfit who’ve forgotten most of the tunes. Driven along by guitar-bass-drums, only a couple of tracks stand to remind the listener of the kinds of things this group were doing for the first half of the disk — except that the first half was recorded second, as it were, so the chronology feels a bit peculiar.
You either like this kind of thing or you don’t. There’s a lot of rousing, jamming riffs here and a pleasing absence of self-indulgent solos, but if you’re looking for experimentalism then most of these will sound surprisingly tame. The primary exception is “Schizzo Scherzo”, which isn’t a scherzo but is certainly abrasively mad (it has a narrated bit at the end which someone ought to have excised, but no matter). The contrast between this electrified, soupy fusion (compare with Screwdriver, say, but not the glossier Ponga) and the more acoustic playing of the first half makes for an interesting and ever-changing listen, a heterogeneous album which, somehow, manages to remain satisfying.
The vinyl is very different again; moody chamber-improv with a filmic edge. It has that classical influence which the name suggests, but also the haunting jazziness of someone like Howard Shore and is very good indeed. The only problem is that the run-out groove was too far in for this writer’s turntable, making the music cut out about 5 minutes before the end. Check this won’t be a problem for you when ordering, which you ought to; this is pleasant and well-played music with a shade of tonality, unagressive but never lazy. Daniel Carter plays particularly well with his nasal, Ornettish alto, and whether the trio are playing Bartockian harmonies or scrabbling like scared chickens the music always seems to hang together and take slow, careful steps forward. The whole thing is slightly reminiscent of Ornette’s Chappaqua Suite, and it’s also nicely hand-packaged in corrugated card fastened with a guitar string. Recommended, and watch out for their CD, due out Autumn 1999, which if this is anything to go by will be an essential purchase. Richard Cochrane