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25 October 2017

Bob James Trio - 'Explosions' (Get Back)

The 60s are full of amazing recordings that push music into new directions; this Bob James Trio LP is often overlooked, maybe because James himself had a long career playing more standard jazz afterwards, and he wasn't there for the long haul. Despite the title, this isn't fire music, but an early exploration of electroacoustic improvisation meeting the jazz idiom head-on. It's credited to the trio of James, Barre Phillips and Robert Pozar, but the frequent incursions of tapes and electronics are the work of Gordon Mumma (on opening track, 'Peasant Boy') and Robert Ashley (on 'Untitled Mixes' and 'Wolfman'). The credits make it unclear if Mumma and Ashley are just responsible for the compositions, or maybe the tape material was supplied by Mumma but not actually, technically 'played' by him on this recording. It's a stunner, though - opening with a bumpy, centreless improvisation between James's piano, Phillips's bass and Pozar's drumkit, it soon withers to almost nothing and the players do an Art Ensemble-esque exploration of space. A few plucked strings, something scraped, a few tonally confusing notes - and this is when Mumma's sounds come in. Sounding like only tapes can sound, you can hear the squleching and squirming movement push the musicians to redefine their approach to colour and mood. This segues perfectly into 'Untitled Mixes', where Ashley's somewhat more present electronics are in place, but it feels like a seamless transition, just a handoff of tapes. The band continues their spacious interplay, with enough emptyness at the core that the surface noise is often alone (or the echo of the studio if your hi-fi equipment is good enough). Slowly, the musicians come back together, and it's harmoniously disharmonious, if that makes any sense. James's 'Explosions' closes the first half, a curiously named piece for something so quiet and spare. Phillips's bowing take centre stage and it sneaks around sonorities not unreminiscent of baroque European composition, eventually puttering to halt which is a false ending, before a few plucked strings resonate to the run-out grooves. Side two begins with Phillips's composition 'An On', which starts with a carnivalesque whirring of some sort of motor and a tin whistle, until the trio comes in and teases out a plodding theme. While neither Mumma nor Ashley are credited here, there's a heavy presence of tape loops, garbling and spinning slowly enough to interplay with the tonalities of the piano and bass quite beautifully, if you find this sort of thing beautiful (I do!). The piece utterly refuses to gel into a recognisable jazz form; that's saved for 'Wolfman'. This closer is the weirdest moment, simple because it sounds like Ashley's 'Wolfman' work (radios and voices) played overtop of a standard post-bop Bob James Trio jazz recording. It's a nice wall of sound, I guess, but there's no interplay, and it just comes off as a failed experiment, albeit not a terrible thing to sit through. The rest of the album is so curiously, cautiously groundbreaking that it fits because of the way it doesn't fit, and Ashley's work is pretty interesting on its own. I never really hear this record talked about much, which is a shame, because it's phenomenal, and tonally it's unlike anything else from the era that I've heard.

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