Into Uncharted Waters

Over the past two decades Doug McCombs has evolved into one of the city’s most distinctive rock bassists, but in the territory he’s recently started to explore–the intersection of rock, jazz, and improvised music–he still feels like a tenderfoot. In the rock group he’s played in since 1985, Eleventh Dream Day, he’s taken exactly one solo. And despite the popular misconception that his main band, Tortoise, is some sort of jazz project, its albums and performances are precisely scripted as well. Even on Field Recordings From the Cook County Water Table, the debut of his solo six-string bass project, Brokeback, he wrote songs and then played them as written. But last spring, when Brokeback–which by then had expanded into a duo with upright bassist Noel Kupersmith–hit the road with the Chicago Underground Duo, something finally clicked.

Every night on the five-week tour, McCombs and Kupersmith would play their set, and the Duo–cornetist Rob Mazurek and percussionist Chad Taylor–would play theirs. Then, as a sort of grand finale, all four musicians would take the stage and wing their way through loosely structured material, usually something Mazurek had worked out with sections that were totally free. It was a challenge for the self-taught McCombs, but he found it liberating. “Before, I always felt like I was kind of a faker,” he says. “I didn’t have a jazz background, and I had never played standards. Now…I’m not comfortable enough with myself to do something completely free, but I have more confidence in myself to actually serve a role in something like that.”

Kupersmith, who earns his living as a jobber, also learned something from the experience. Like Mazurek and Taylor, he was a formally trained player who’d started out playing straightforward jazz but was looking for ways to expand his vocabulary and approach. “We were trying to get out of the so-called jazz idiom of improvising,” he says.

A new Brokeback EP, Morse Code in the Modern Age: Across the Americas, which comes out January 23 on Thrill Jockey, doesn’t involve Mazurek or Taylor, but it does capture the neither-fish-nor-fowl spirit of the tour’s experiments. Of the three pieces, two are decidedly abstract, the occasional dreamy melody floating past the way a tantalizing smell from a kitchen might waft out into the backyard on a summer evening. And all three are radically different from the meticulously crafted tunes of Field Recordings.

The lengthy opener, “Lives of the Rhythm Experts,” was edited together from three separate improvisations recorded in New York with Tim Foljahn (of Two Dollar Guitar), experimental guitar hero Alan Licht, and James McNew (who usually plays bass in Yo La Tengo but here contributes keyboards); Kupersmith overdubbed his parts later. The second track, “Flat Handed and on the Wing,” was recorded in Tucson with Joey Burns of Calexico and that group’s sometime cornetist Jon Birdsong. The EP closes with a brief, almost orchestral rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared” that features the Arizona crew and some sweet, wordless murmuring by Stereolab’s Mary Hansen. “The first two pieces are long and they demand a certain degree of attention,” says McCombs. “I saw the Roy Orbison song as a resolution for that, a short, succinct, fully composed thing that sort of works as a fanfare.”

McCombs says the EP’s improvisational focus was an experiment, and that Brokeback’s next recording–which probably won’t take shape until after Tortoise finishes touring behind its upcoming fourth LP–will probably once again emphasize composed material. Technically it’ll also be the first Brokeback release featuring Kupersmith as an equal partner.

“Once it became apparent to me that we got along and we sounded good playing together, I knew I wanted to ask him to be a collaborator,” says McCombs. “But in the back of my mind I had the first Brokeback LP. I had been planning it for years and I felt like I had to finish it on my own, even though Noel plays on half of it.” Although most of the duo’s recent live performances have featured a wide variety of guests, none are slated to perform at the record release party this Saturday at the Empty Bottle. The Aluminum Group–whose recent release, Pelo, features contributions by McCombs on six-string bass and lap steel–headlines.

Archer in Australia

Archer Prewitt also takes a stylistic detour on his new EP, Gerroa Songs (Carrot Top), recorded in Australia in March 1999. Compared with the sparkly, immaculate pop found on his two previous solo outings, the tone of the new eight-song, 27-minute release is subdued and dark. In his liner notes Prewitt remarks on the “eerie aura” of the seaside site, a former nunnery, where the music was recorded, and the atmospheric effects include the chirps of local insects and a chilly echo. On a variety of spare instrumentals and melancholy songs–most notably the Lennon-esque centerpiece, “Another Peace of Mind”–Prewitt evokes the emotional austerity of Nick Drake without actually sounding like him.

A Nasty Turn

Tribute to Masayuki Takayanagi (Grob), an exercise in sonic violence by Weasel Walter, Jim O’Rourke, and Fred Lonberg-Holm, theoretically pays homage to the great Japanese free jazz guitarist, who channeled raw, wild energy into a razor-sharp attack with his New Direction Unit in the 70s and has often been compared to Sonny Sharrock. If you’re looking for an accurate introduction to his work, though, look elsewhere–this is a noise record. Taking on black-metal pseudonyms for extra hyperbolic flavor, Walter (“Necrodevourer”), Lonberg-Holm (“Sado-Immolator”), and O’Rourke (“Lycanthrovampyr”) pummel drums, guitar, and cello through five tracks with titles like “Endless Corridor of Roasted Babies” and “Give Me Head ’til You’re Dead.”

Walter’s manifestolike liner notes posit the making of this relentless din as a political act: “The concept of creating works with seemingly superhuman energy levels and endurance (creatively and physically) is appealing to me as an attempt to conjure a state of transcendence. I’m striving to divert some of my own attention away from the mundanity of life in the societally-reinforced mediocrity of current American behavioral conditioning.” The music’s freneticism and lacerating volume make it extremely hard to take in large doses–the CD is more than an hour long–but that seems to be precisely the point.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.