What Does a Bowling Ball Sound Like?

Dawson Prater has a knack for rooting out obscure musical gems–and for putting them back in print where they belong. He moved to Chicago in the fall of 1999 to start Ampersand Records, a joint venture with Italian label owner Filippo Salvadori that reissued lost classics by avant-gardists such as John Cage, Derek Bailey, and Cornelius Cardew. Last year when Prater launched his own company, Locust Music, reissues made up a good chunk of its catalog too–the first recordings of oddball folkie Michael Hurley, the work of little-known Fluxus-related New York musician Henry Flynt, and Allen Ginsberg’s New York Blues: Rags, Ballads & Harmonium Songs, recorded by filmmaker and folk music chronicler Harry Smith.

Now Prater’s interested in releasing original material as well. Locust has already put out several discs featuring Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and one by cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Lightbox Orchestra. But Prater wanted to do something more than put a microphone in front of some musicians, let them snort and scrape for an hour, and package the results. “Seeing such great music locally, I knew I wanted to get involved in it,” says Prater, 30, “but with some other element thrown in that would make it a little more appealing in the sense that it’s not just another improv record.”

So he conceived the “Object” series, a project that asks players to attempt a musical translation of inanimate nonmusical items.

The first “Object” releases, due in March, are duet recordings–one from Lonberg-Holm and German trumpeter Axel Dorner, another with reedist Kyle Bruckmann and trumpeter Ernst Karel performing as EKG. Photographs of the objects–such as a bowling ball, a matchbook, and a chest X ray–will appear on the discs’ covers. It’s up to listeners to make whatever connections they can between these things and the music.

Prater brought a curatorial approach to his “Location Sound/Met Life” series as well. He solicited musicians and composers from all over the globe to record continuous, unedited sets of urban sounds between 18 and 24 minutes long, then respond to or interpret that material. (Both the source material and the response are included on each album.) Keith Fullerton Whitman (aka Hrvatski) initiates the series this month with Dartmouth Street Underpass, a droning long-tone composition that integrates ambient sound from a Boston subway; later in the series Turkish composer Erdem Helvacioglu will unveil his contribution, a melodic dreamscape created by electronically enhancing a recording of an Istanbul market. Other participants include Argentine weirdos Reynols, San Francisco sample masters Matmos (the electronic duo that backed Bjork on her 2001 tour), and musicians from the Netherlands, Poland, India, and Japan.

Prater is keeping busy–last year he also started Ikef, an imprint dedicated to African-American spoken word recordings. And Ampersand is still up and running, though its operations have been significantly scaled back. But Locust is his main concern–the label has issued 15 titles and Prater hopes to see that number hit 45 by the end of the year. New acts include Japanese electronic musician No. 9, who combines elements of Nobukazu Takemura with a pop sensibility, and Philadelphia psychedelic-folk group the Espers. Locust is also releasing a compilation of acoustic finger-style guitar music featuring Japanese experimentalist Tetuzi Akiyama, German improv musician Steffen Basho Junghans, and the Sun City Girls’ Alan Bishop, and is handling distribution for some of the releases on Quakebasket, the label operated by New York drummer Tim Barnes. And there will be more reissues–namely discs from LSD guru Timothy Leary and Zen philosopher Alan Watts.

King Sunny’s Good Old Days

When Island Records signed King Sunny Ade in 1982, they hoped the Nigerian bandleader’s gently polyrhythmic juju music could make him the next Bob Marley. The company worked hard, pairing Ade with French producer Martin Meissonnier, hiring Stevie Wonder to blow harmonica on one of his tracks, and tirelessly promoting him in the English-speaking world. While Ade did help spread African music to a large audience, he never became an international pop icon. Maybe the label worked a little too hard–as fine as these 80s discs are, they lack the spark of the singer-guitarist’s pre-Island recordings.

On Tuesday Shanachie Records is set to release a superb selection of material cut between 1967 and 1974 (formerly available only on expensive, hard-to-find imports) as The Best of the Classic Years. Compared to the Island discs, the guitar lines interlock more crisply, the improvisations are both grittier and more spacey, and the shifting percussion–driven by a pair of sublimely melodic talking drums–flows more organically. The raw production makes the music sound more vivid than Island’s slick studio treatment ever could. And the 18-minute “Synchro System” (a skimpy six-minute version of which was recorded for the 1983 Island album of the same name) is a prime example of how Ade and his band could stretch out simple material into an epic groove.

Hold the Fluff

Joel Kriske and Marc Hellner, the Portland transplants who call themselves Pulseprogramming, are scheduled to release their second album, Tulsa for One Second (Aesthetics), on February 11. The recording abandons the ordinary ambient electronic dance music of their earlier work for a set of dreamy soundscapes punctured by rhythmic glitches. Vocals are provided on several tunes by L’altra’s Lindsay Anderson, whose honeyed lines seep through the jagged rhythms. Though the group’s weakness for ethereal fluff makes for some dull patches, this album is undeniably pretty.

Five Saxes at Sixth Summit

Five Chicago saxophonists from different generations, representing a variety of styles, will come together on Friday, February 7, at 7 PM, for the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s sixth annual Saxophone Summit. Free-jazz star Ken Vandermark, 8 Bold Souls leader Edward Wilkerson, Velvet Lounge regular Dennis Winslett, bebop young lion Frank Catalano, and bluesy veteran Jimmy Ellis will perform their original compositions with pianist Ken Chaney, bassist Tatsu Aoki, and drummer Avreeayl Ra for this free concert at La Follette Park (1333 N. Laramie). For more information call 312-427-1676.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell, Daniel Ray.