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Squarepusher's drum'n'bass'n'jazz

By Douglas Wolk

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  Tom Jenkinson has been recording berserk drum 'n' bass for a few years. So anyone who picks up his new Music Is Rotted One Note (Nothing/Interscope) would be right to expect the usual beat mayhem. What he or she will get instead is something completely different: a jazz album. Jenkinson's work has always had jazz undertones: on stage, his beats are usually accompanied by his own fretless-bass improvisations. But Rotted takes his improv tendencies to an extreme. It's a sort of homage to Miles Davis's early electric recordings, with Jenkinson playing all the instruments himself in breakbeat-free compositions. The few electro-buzzes that do appear don't show up until rather late in the disc.

Rotted's American release last month was accompanied by the release of Squarepusher's most out-there drum 'n' bass disc (also on Trent Reznor's Interscope imprint Nothing). It's an expanded version of last year's British EP Big Loada, a flea circus of beats that zoom around so fast they seem to be skidding out of control. A friend of mine described its sound as "jerking off on a pinball machine." (Stick the American Big Loada into your CD-ROM drive and you'll get an epilepsy-inducing video for "Come On My Selector," in which an insane little girl takes over an asylum.) Frenetic, whirling, and crisp, it's the kind of music that's earned Jenkinson his rep as an electronic auteur.

So, then, what's up with his sudden left turn into more organic music?

"I was getting diminishing returns," he says, "putting in more and more detail and getting less and less depth to the music, because I was going so heavily into programming. I never saw any kind of gap between jazz and drum 'n' bass. I listen to a lot of old jazz -- the mid and late '60s is my favorite period. And there's a strong pulse thing going for me, no matter how I try to subvert it, that comes from listening to lots of dub and reggae when I was young."

Jenkinson is certainly right about his sense of pulse: his best tracks tend to set up steady pulsing patterns around which he improvises more with rhythms than with pitch. "A Journey to Reedham," the highlight of Big Loada, is built around a 64-note synth pattern as steady as a rivet gun, with a wobbly, syncopated counter-melody to keep it from sounding too Kraftwerkian. The high-speed breakbeats that provide the backbone of a normal drum 'n' bass track are freed to become the lead instrument, collapsing and expanding into arrhythmic patterns of skids, rolls, scrapes, and beat-decentering accents. His point about depth versus detail is arguable, though: the reason Big Loada is so effective is that it's as deep as a skipping stone -- in other words, not at all when it's working right.

But Jenkinson's interest in improvisation has taken him away from that kind of hyper-detailed intricacy. "When you're using a sequencer," he says, "you're operating a lot more in the rational, logical areas of your mind. By the nature of the instrument, you have to tell it where and what to play, and you can't help but get into the sort of state of mind where you're playing it bit by bit. I want to get away from that, because it's ultimately made my creative interest dry up in making sequenced music."

Hence Rotted, as close to a collective improvisation as one person is capable of recording on his own. "The tracks were put together quite quickly, with a rough idea of a sort of rhythm in my head. I'd pull out the drums, play them for a while, just improvising, stop and listen for an emergent structure in it. I'd work with that and form the melodic ideas from the idea of what I'd already heard, then go to the keyboard and start making some sounds with it. Gradually, the tracks just pieced themselves together -- one bit would establish another. Ninety-five percent of the individual parts were recorded in real time. Some of the drums are edited, but they're the only things I edited."

He's certainly gotten down the atmospherics of electric Miles records on Rotted -- the fractal randomness of the bass parts, the synthesizers that establish a mode more than specific chords, the fusion-oid drumming -- and nobody else is making this kind of music these days. The problem is that Davis's band, even at its most abstract, tended to pull in more or less a single direction, or at least find somebody in the group to lead, and too many of these tracks just hover in place for a few minutes, unfocused, and then disappear. "My Sound" is a significant exception, a simple 6/4 motif put through its paces for six leisurely minutes, but otherwise the album lacks the collaborative friction that fuels group-improvised music.

Although Jenkinson says he prefers working on his own (he's one of the few big electronic artists who never do remixes), he's "putting out feelers" for other artists to play at a regular night of improvised and experimental music. He's also decided to give up his recording alter egos of Chaos A.D. and Duke of Harringay and stick to the Squarepusher name for all his musical projects. "I make a lot of rapid changes in the way I do music, and I don't want to hide that -- I think it's one of my strengths. I'm not trying to deny it."


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