Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Mat Muntz - Phantom Islands


Phantom Islands

I feel especially qualified to review this album, as its title refers to a concept I am infinitely fascinated by. Phantom islands are those that appear erroneously on old maps - either mistaken discoveries by unreliable navigators, or myths corrupted over time into facts. Though they don’t exist in the physical world, they are certainly slightly real due to their documented locations on a very real Earth. This means anyone can be geographically and historically informed when creating their own details about these islands’ lore. Bassist/bagpiper/composer Mat Muntz has done this on his album Phantom Islands, as he’s mentioned in an interview about the opening track “Džig No. 1”. This song is an imagination of the music of Satanazes - one of the many insular pseudo-Americas placed on medieval European maps in the centuries between the Vikings and Columbus, the bizarrely intermediate time of “There must be SOMETHING out there to the west! Maybe it’s full of DEMONS!”
And here may well be demons. This album does something utterly unique by combining the influence of several comparatively obscure traditional musics (all of insular origin) in an avant-garde, microtonal setting. Far from a mere thought experiment, the music focuses on the spiritual element of these traditions, especially the mystery and mysticism of the sea. These folk musics’ quirks are amplified as they are combined, and the resulting soundscapes are both disorienting and mesmerizing. Often the instrumentation is the only thing to hang onto. These are folk tunes of an alternate universe, one that has adopted Western instruments in quite unconventional ways.
The music that informs this album most directly comes from the Adriatic coast and islands of Croatia. Muntz plays the primorski meh (or Istrian mih), a bagpipe from this region, on much of the album including the entire first and last tracks. He has described this instrument as sounding avant-garde, at least to Western ears, even in its traditional setting; his multiphonics here are truly alien, sounding electronic while being purely acoustic. Muntz has showcased the bagpipe on previous recordings, most notably the terrifying ghostly.ridiculous from 2021. It plays an important role in The Vex Collection as well, the monumental 2022 album he co-created with composer/percussionist Vicente Hansen which features a bizarre panoply of reed instruments both traditional and invented. Phantom Islands, on the Los Angeles-based Orenda label, feels more like a jazz recording than these, but its massed reed textures identify it as cut from the same cloth. Muntz is joined in the reed section by Pablo O’Connell on oboe, Yuma Uesaka on clarinet and bass clarinet, and Xavier Del Castillo on tenor sax. Guitarist Alec Goldfarb and drummer Michael Larocca complete the ensemble. All are extremely versatile players and improvisers who collectively create a definitive vision of Muntz’ music while still letting their individual voices be heard.
“Džig No. 1” is the shortest and fastest of the five pieces. The microtonal language of the primorski meh is expanded to the full ensemble, while the rhythm and melodic shapes recall Irish or Scottish jigs - another island music. It’s a whirling, swirling, skirling, alien folk dance full of wild solos and fills; O’Connell’s multiphonics near the end are especially unhinged. “Three Mirages, Small Town Blues” is a sort of suite which travels dream-like through a surreal collection of ensemble textures, from chorales to drones and even a hard-swinging groove in the middle. “May The Sea Be His Grave” is also a suite, split into two tracks but again with each containing many disparate textures and instrumentations. This piece is inspired by fijiri, the work songs of Bahraini pearl divers. The first half has plaintive, passionate solos from all the “horn” players (including Muntz), while the second contains an epic free-jazz breakdown that manages to stay microtonal throughout.
The final track, “Obokuri”, is a bagpipe/drums duo. It’s a high-energy piece, but the change in instrumentation brings a refreshing lightness. Muntz improvises around a melody from the Amami islands of southern Japan; this geographically unlikely instrument/song combination sounds like alternate-universe blues. Especially with this track, I envision Muntz on the shore of his own phantom island, robber-crabbishly collecting far-flung sounds that have washed in with the waves and using them for unexpected new purposes.
The cover art by C.M. Kösemen, with its surreal amphibians, is perfect for this album. Like Muntz, Kösemen is a world-builder, known for his unique imaginations of alternate histories and alien species. I can’t predict where Muntz is going next with this music, but a closer collaboration with Kösemen involving the latter’s writing would be mind-blowing. But then again, so is Phantom Islands already - and so, I’m sure, will be whatever is next.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

James McKain, James Paul Nadien, Caleb Duval - Dancing



New England has long been a breeding ground for avant-garde jazz and other creative music, but it seems like right now the region - especially Connecticut - is having its moment in the spotlight of skronk. The local collective behind the record label firstname lastname has been busily releasing music throughout 2022; Dancing is the latest issue from this label as of early January 2023. It’s a free-improv trio album featuring Caleb Duval on electric bass (a member of the firstname lastname collective), James McKain on tenor sax and James Paul Nadien on drums. All three are becoming increasingly recognized as exciting, highly individual players and improvisers.

The Bandcamp description of Dancing calls it “stupid music for stupid people”. I’m pretty sure I understand why - and this is in no way a put-down. The freedom of pure improvisation feels a little like having nothing in your head. Perhaps everything in your head has been replaced by dancing. And here we get the origin of this album’s title - Dancing and its three constituent tracks “In”, “Your”, and “Head” are named after one of the all-time masterpieces of free jazz, Ornette Coleman’s 1975 album Dancing In Your Head. In all three tracks on Dancing, McKain and Duval develop the theme from “Theme From A Symphony”, the song whose two takes fill up most of the Coleman album. This is a very simple theme - some may even call it kind of stupid, though as all the great improvisers have taught us, there is really nothing too stupid to play. Or, to use a completely apocryphal anti-quote that I once misattributed to some famous person or other but which I almost certainly made up, “all the geniuses of the world have never been afraid to be a little stupid”.

Dancing is short but feels long - not much over a half hour in total length, but divided into only three tracks, around twelve minutes each. It’s a loud, cathartic and boisterous album. All three musicians are really blasting almost throughout, and despite (or perhaps because of) the explosive energy no one really steps on the others’ toes. They are certainly listening to each other while each contributes their own individual chaos. Duval has the largest sonic palette of this trio, alternating freely between melodic lines (with and without distortion) and more static beds of noise. Neither of the Jameses contribute many extended techniques on their respective instruments; both find their intensity in raw acoustic power. There is no steady pulse anywhere in “In” or “Your”. “Head” has more of a well-defined form, going into tempo both before and after two minutes of solo bass - really the only solo improv on the album.

The “Theme From A Symphony” theme, which first appears around the middle of “In”, is given a new character in this not-quite-a-tribute album. Duval and McKain repeat the theme manically and ritualistically; more of a chant than a hook, it’s conducive to a rather different kind of (?head-)dancing than the original. McKain often adds an embellishment to both phrases of the theme, which accentuates the folkloric element inherent in so simple a melody. At these times, even without a steady tempo, it sounds kind of jiggy - perhaps like a broken carousel organ stuck on a little bit of “Pop Goes The Weasel” (…Walter?) Besides the allusions to the actual theme, I would say the in-tempo part in the middle of “Head” - before the solo bass - also reminds me of “Theme From A Symphony” and its bubbly, bouncy energy, simultaneously grooving and not grooving.

One last element of Dancing I should mention is its humor. Duval comes up with some goofy combinations of shred and noise, and Nadien’s disco groove near the end of “Head” is somehow on the wholesome back end of irony. There is classic free-jazz comedy in the endings of “In” and “Head”, with Duval and McKain respectively overstepping the conclusion of the ensemble climaxes. Of course there is subtle humor in Ornette Coleman’s music too, and the embrace of absurdity by McKain, Duval, and Nadien seems like a fitting tribute. They seem to know, like Coleman surely did, that stupid is not just for stupid people. There are places out there that you can only get to if you have nothing in your head but dancing.

Mat Muntz - ghostly.ridiculous


I listened to ghostly.ridiculous the night before getting my first COVID vaccine shot. It was - somehow - the perfect situation to take in this album. The title is an apt summation of the unsettling reality of both this work and the absurd, spectral nature of the 2020s so far.
ghostly.ridiculous is a (mostly) solo self-release by composer and multi-instrumentalist Mat Muntz, who has become particularly known for his 2022 album The Vex Collection. This latter work is a magnificent collaboration with composer/percussionist Vicente Hansen Atria that brings together an unlikely menagerie of traditional and invented reed instruments. ghostly.ridiculous, released a year earlier, comes from the same general lore as The Vex Collection - as well as Muntz’ most recent album Phantom Islands - and is just as spectacular as these ensemble recordings though the mood of all three is quite different.
Though primarily a bassist, Muntz is quickly becoming recognized as perhaps the only experimental/improvising musician on the primorski meh (also called the Istrian mih), a traditional bagpipe from the Adriatic coast and islands of Croatia. Muntz has mastered this instrument; its distinctive scale, which to Western ears has a “diminished” sort of sound, permeates most of his work. This scale is often used as a jumping-off point for explorations of diverse, often unfamiliar tuning systems, as heard in the electronic sounds which make up much of ghostly.ridiculous. As he describes in the liner notes, Muntz’ use of the meh unifies traditional and experimental elements of his music.
About half an hour in total length, this album is available from Bandcamp in two formats: as a single, unbroken track, and split up into eight movements. Though the movements flow very well into each other, the album seems more like a multi-movement piece than a single block of music. As with other Muntz works, the movements are cleverly, evocatively titled. Rather uniquely, only four of the titles are in English - three are Croatian, and the final movement Latin. This Latin title, “Muscae Volitantes”, translates to “flying flies”, which is appropriate as this is certainly an entomological album. Field recordings of cicadas appear in several movements, and others use high-pitched glitches that sound like robotic insects. The tightness of intervals in the microtonal scales, both electronic and bagpiped, helps to create a microcosmic feeling augmented by the nasality or tinniness of many of the timbres. The listener is drawn in to focus on something very small and close-up. This album may induce claustrophobia - or even entomophobia.
The first movement is an introduction less than a minute long; it starts with cicadas and introduces both glitch and chorale elements that appear in some later movements. This leads directly into “Gladni Duh” (“Hungry Ghost”), the first of three “ghost” movements. This entirely electronic track features a percussion loop that seems to change tempo many times within each repeat. The bagpipe first appears in the third movement, “Tocsin” (an archaic word meaning an alarm bell), wailing in sliding drones over ominous gongings and clangs. Toward the middle of this movement, the electronic percussion adds complicated rhythms with a comically exaggerated swing feel. The loops of irrational rhythm and microtonal harmonies in these and the next two movements bring the “ridiculous” end of the ghostly-ridiculous continuum.
A one-minute interlude movement introduces the double bass, arco here in a high-overtoned register. Next up is “Glasni Duh” (“Loud Ghost”), a longer and even more agitated sequel to “Gladni Duh” with bagpipe shredding on top. “Strašni Duh” (“Scary Ghost”) is well-titled; it’s almost all glitch, with the electronics augmented by acoustic string noise from both Muntz and guest guitarist Alec Goldfarb. The strings make the electronics more disturbing, like medical equipment come to life. 
“Moon In Daylight”, which starts after a minute of cicadas, is the opposite of comforting after the nightmarish “Strašni Duh”. The bagpipe returns here, in the midst of an eldritch chorale that gets stuck halfway through in a miasmatic chord-cloud like a heavy weight bearing down on the middle ear. It ends rather abruptly with a howl and more cicadas going into the last movement. “Muscae Volitantes” also contains a sort of chorale, followed by a bagpipe drone processed into glutinous lumps of sound that get increasingly chaotic - and quickly fade out. It’s a perfect anti-ending to an album that feels like a Dadaist horror film.
ghostly.ridiculous may be a bit overlooked in favor of the grand visions of The Vex Collection and Phantom Islands, but if those inspire you to explore further don’t sleep on this one. It’s challenging, fascinating, and utterly unique - its own little world, ridiculous as life and twice as ghostly.