Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise

By Stephen Grimstead

FEBRUARY 7, 2000: 

Jonas Hellborg, Shawn Lane, Zenhouse (Bardo)

Guitar wizardry has been out of vogue for a long while now. Still, many musicians in possession of super-technical skills seem to be almost biologically compelled to flaunt their amazing gifts, undaunted by the caprice of popular opinion. Swedish bass wizard Jonas Hellborg and hometown guitar hero Shawn Lane appear to fit that description nicely.

Over the past several years Hellborg, Lane, and drummer/percussionist Apt. Q-258 (a.k.a. Jeff Sipe, formerly with cult favorite Col. Bruce Hampton’s old Aquarium Rescue Unit) have been busy establishing a presence in the world of improvisational jazz fusion. Primarily on the strength of two chops-intensive releases (Temporal Analogues of Paradise and Time Is the Enemy, available on the Day Eight and Bardo labels, respectively), these three very scary players have served notice as to their intentions and capabilities.

Zenhouse is a definite departure from the previous electric jamfests. For starters, Zenhouse is an acoustic affair. But it’s also important to note that this CD finds the guys in a rather contemplative mood. The whole thing was recorded live at a barn-turned-gallery in the Swedish boonies, and the music is said to have been performed without any prior planning as to structure or content. With a few passages of exception, the musicians pretty much keep things beneath the boiling point until the fourth track (“Conclusion”), which quickly evolves into the show of force that only players of this stripe can muster.

One thing Zenhouse does have in common with their earlier work is the trio’s apparent devotion to the extended jam format. The vast majority of the music on this release can be described as very meditative, with Middle Eastern/Asian-style melody/lead lines orbiting around a droning tonal center anchored by Sipes’ percussion work.

Zenhouse is certainly a mighty contribution to the genre. But I have to say that I yearn to hear Lane combine his incredible improvisational abilities with what I believe to be his equally staggering compositional prowess. I guess I’m hoping that some day he’ll unleash a sequel to Powers of Ten.

George Cartwright, The Memphis Years (Cuneiform Rune 127)

Once again, George Cartwright and his cohorts do a fine job of making my job tougher. The music on this new CD is very fresh, free, uninterested in musical clichés, and often defies the efforts of a hack reviewer like me to adequately describe it.

On paper, the pairing seems like a bad idea, but singer Amy Denio’s girl-next-door vocals co-exist quite well with saxophonist Cartwright’s weirdo-from-Mensa jazz compositions and improvisations. Factor Paul Haines’ wonderfully amorphous poetry/lyrics into the equation and the result is avant-garde jazz plus several supplementary aspects. And the presence of these aspects accounts for the difficulty involved with writing about this music. It seems to me thsat Cartwright must have a firm grip on the well-established conventions of musical language to be able to undermine those conventions with such unfailing expertise. And yet, the pieces on The Memphis Years usually sound rather tossed off, not calculated. Equally impressive is the fact that the tuneful moments and the dissonant moments are never at odds with one another.

Along with Denio and Haines, the former Memphian Cartwright is joined on this CD by Doug Garrison (drums, percussion), Kevin Sheehan (acoustic bass), Tim Goodwin (acoustic and electric bass), Tom Clary (flugelhorn), Scott Thompson (trumpet), Lawrence Miller (tenor sax), Chris Parker (piano), the ever-valuable Jim Spake (baritone, tenor, and soprano saxes), and from Curlew, Cartwright’s main project, the always-dangerous Davey Williams (guitar).

When I listen to The Memphis Years I feel as if I’m cracking the code of some madman’s rambling dissertation. And not only do I finally understand what he’s saying to me, but I also realize that he’s telling me something important!

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