Just the One
The use of overdubbing seems inherently inappropriate for jazz and improvised music. Improvisation is about spontaneity. It capitalizes on the contingencies of the moment and always confronts the possibility of failure. Overdubbing consists of superimposed moments and thrives on the infinite power to reconsider. Improvisation treats time as a force not to be messed with; multitrack recordings treat time as a pliable medium suitable for splicing.
Jazz and improvised music, moreover, are deeply concerned with sociability. Sure, there’s a history of solo jazz performing, but the genre’s center has always been in the ensemble. Live musicians interact in real time, playing off each other, giving one another ideas, cutting one another in a battle royal. At best, overdub feigns such musical interplay, since each track is made independently, separated at least by time and possibly by place. The only kind of communication that can occur in studio overdub is one-way, flowing from an already completed track through headphones to the next musician playing along. In jazz, of course, lines of communication are usually two-way, person to person.
Isn’t it funny, then, that jazz was the first type of music made using multitrack means? In April 1941 Sidney Bechet recorded “Sheik of Araby” for RCA in New York. Known as a saxophonist and clarinetist, Bechet expanded for this session, playing clarinet, soprano and tenor sax, piano, bass, and drums. Though overdubbing was common in film during the 1930s, and other musicians and engineers (especially guitarist Les Paul) refined the process shortly after Bechet cut the song, this was its first exclusively musical application.
Over the last decade more improvisers have put out overdubbed records, sometimes with great success. British saxophonists Evan Parker and John Butcher both recorded one-man multitrack CDs in 1991. And Chicago’s own sorely missed jazzketeer Hal Russell made a full-length record of single-handed multitrack pieces, Hal’s Bells (ECM), in 1992, just a year before he died. On it he played tenor and soprano saxes, trumpet, musette, drums, vibes, marimba, congas, and bells. And–not to forget his own dulcet tones–he also sang into his trademark cardboard megaphone. Like Bechet, Russell was perfect for the task; he started his professional career as a drummer and percussionist, picking up sax and trumpet under the influence of 60s free-jazzers Albert Ayler and Don Cherry. Russell also worked in vaudeville; no doubt he had a soft spot for the novelty and sideshow connotations of the one-man band. American jazz trumpeter Leo Smith has just released a solo overdub record called Kulture Jazz (ECM), and since the mid-80s some Swiss musicians have tried their hand at the format, including Jürg Hager, Markus Eichenberger, and Urs Leimgruber.
Two more musicians from Switzerland have recently taken up the challenge of reconciling improvisation and overdubbing. Working independently, saxophonist/composer Urs Blochlinger and multiinstrumentalist Ruedi Hausermann have both produced new CDs in which they play a wide array of instruments. Both discs mix improvised and composed music. Neither record is strictly jazz. They also draw on 20th-century classical composers from Stockhausen to Satie and the tradition of tape experimentation that began with composers Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Alvin Lucier, and John Cage, painter Jean Dubuffet, and writer William S. Burroughs. In the late 40s Pierre Schaeffer began making compositions strictly out of taped materials, thereby initiating the approach known as musique concrete–a sure touchstone for Blochlinger and Häusermann as well. (Incidentally, tape composer Pierre Henry’s 1963 masterpiece Variations on a Door and a Sigh, a 50-minute series of 25 manipulations of brief recordings of a squeaky door and a sighing voice, has recently been reissued on CD by the Harmonia Mundi label.)
Still, both Blochlinger’s Just the One and Häusermann’s Galerie Randolph have distinct jazz influences in spirit and in sound. They recall Bechet’s enthusiastic solo routines as much as Dubuffet’s naive noisemaking and Schaeffer’s inquisitions of ambient sound. Hausermann was in fact a member of Blöchlinger’s Tettet in 1984 when it recorded the eclectic, entertaining two-record set Neurotica for hat ART. While they both have main axes–Häusermann specializes in flutes, while Blochlinger plays the full sax family–on that record they both listed “little instruments” in their credits. This implies a link to Chicago’s own AACM and the innovations of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Muhal Richard Abrams (multiinstrumentalists one and all), whose tables of various instruments and assorted noisemaking devices showed up listed the same way on records starting in the late 60s.
Hausermann’s Galerie Randolph is sort of a suite. Twelve relatively short tracks are built out of variations on a small amount of quirky material: a noodlelike bass motif and gradually shifting block chords stated on organ and reeds. These return continually, as if caught in a revolving door; each time they’re dressed up in a slightly different costume–ornamented with a violin bow sawing on some stringed instrument or with piano restating and augmenting the choirlike chords. On “Blaue Dominante, Ol auf Kupfer,” a jazzish little sax and piano part pokes its head in, while the splashing cymbals of a high hat make an entrance on “Marktfrau mit Gemuse.”
On the back of the liner book, a note in German cautions: “Absolutely not suitable as background music (for example, in a warehouse, bank, or fitness center).” Hausermann’s right–it’s music to be listened to attentively. Despite the constant repetition, the piece never seems boring or redundant; rather, it unfolds in a narrative fashion, each new sound appearing like a new character or scene in this aural play. Häusermann has composed extensively for theater and film and he’s written music specifically for children. Galerie Randolph has a childlike curiosity about it; it’s a wordless bedtime story, a multitrack fairy tale as weird as those by the original Grimm brothers.
On his multitrack excursion Just the One, Blochlinger plays alto, sopranino, and bass sax, flute, alto horn, trumpet, piano, organ, guitar, telephone, and some instruments I’ve never heard of (ch-phon and Chugelibahn, anyone?). As if to make fun of the single-mindedness of the project, he is actually joined by drummer Martin Gantenbein on the 59-second track “S’chunt Bsuech”; Blochlinger contributes superimpositions of answering machine and striking piano chords played back on a cheap tape recorder to the percussionist’s quick gestures. Blochlinger’s disc is more distinctly “jazzy” than Hausermann’s. In fact, one track asks the basic rhetorical question on many a listener’s mind these days: “Who is who, and to whom is what, in jazz?” This segues without break into the next track, “Early Morning Raga,” a tongue-in-cheek bottleneck-guitar blues solo. The unadulterated sopranino solos “Intime 2” and “Lee Minor Complex” bring to mind the slippery tone of great British reedman Lol Coxhill and his American antecedent Pee Wee Russell.
Sometimes Blochlinger is a one-person saxophone chorus (Regozenter” and the icy “Hitchcock”), while elsewhere he’s a fidgety kid in a music store. Tracks range in length from the 34-second shot of saxophone ensemble called “Cadavre Exquis” to the eight-and-a-half-minute piece entitled “Huber,” the first seven minutes of which are exclusively bass sax (played through an octave divider or some other electronic gizmo) while the final minute features a duet with unidentifiable percussion. The same percussion sounds reappear in “Lord of the Flies,” alongside a buzzing mouth noise that comes on like a horsefly trapped in a glass jar. Like Galerie Randolph, Blochlinger’s disc is an adventure, a sonic theater piece without definitive script or absolute meaning. And for those listening carefully, there’s an unannounced bonus after the last track is over: a short, uncredited sopranino-drum duet ties things up with a Dixieland flourish.
Tape compositions like these–playful, experimental, colorful–show there’s a wealth of sound excitement to be had and new discoveries to be made in studio overdubbing. Though probably the wrong move for some group jazz–and note that neither of these musicians created a faux band by playing solos over a reconstituted standard rhythm section–overdubbing allows us to rethink some of the basic precepts of improvisation, perhaps even the relationship between musical performance and the technology of recording. Jazz purists don’t like the idea–that’s clear from the uproar that surrounded the release of the sound track to the film Bird, which included newly dubbed-in rhythm parts for Charlie Parker’s solos. But that debate is as much political and ethical–namely, who has the right to control the sound of jazz history?–as aesthetic. In the meantime, jazz fans listen to old recordings of improvisations over and over, marveling at something that was once as ephemeral as the wind. Studio manipulation reminds us of the unresolved dialectic between “liveness” and its “capture” on tape.
Many derogatory jokes have been made connecting solo multitrack and masturbation. Of course: it involves playing with yourself. But from Bechet to Blochlinger overdub has also been a source of musical invention, one that’s best for people with more than a one-track mind. (CDs on the Plainisphare and Unit labels are available from North Country Distribution, Cadence Building, Redwood, NY 13679; 315-287-2860.)