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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1499

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by George Graham

(Blue Note 93879. As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/3/2007)

Technology has always been a factor in music. With the exception of singing, just about all music involves some kind of invention, whether it be a violin perfected hundreds of years ago, or an electric guitar, or high-tech synthesizer. A couple of decades ago, the technology of sampling became practical -- the idea of taking a recording of an existing sound and using that as the voice of a synthesizer. Hand in hand with sampling is looping, which actually goes back to the days of tape, in which one would create a continuous sound from a short recording being played over and over again, originally from a loop of tape.

Sampling and looping showed a lot of potential for fascinating and original sounds but have almost completely degenerated into the basis for a lot of annoying, repetitive music made by people who are barely musicians, if they can play anything at all. So in light of that, I have come to take a rather dim view of the whole idea of sampling and looping. The concepts behind the technique have great artistic potential, it's just that not many are taking advantage of them. Creative, skilled musicians don't need loops to make worthwhile music.

But once in a while, some of those creative, skilled musicians can take what has become prosaic and elevate it to something stimulating. And that is what we have this week with a project called Floratone. I call it a project, since it was a multi-stage effort involving first-rate musicians, and skilled pair of producers.

Floratone started when the much respected and eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell, known for his work in jazz and atmospheric rock, got together with a fellow Seattle resident, Matt Chamberlain, a drummer probably best known for his long association with singer-songwriter Tori Amos. They decided to get together and improvise and roll tape, just the two of them, coming up with whole series of pieces of various length with just the guitar and percussion -- not exactly a recipe for music with a wide audience potential. They turned over the recordings to a pair of producers, Lee Townshend, who has worked with Frisell on many projects, and Tucker Martine, an engineer and producer who has worked with some contemporary artists such as the Laura Veirs Band, and who is obviously into sampling and looping. Townshend and Martine went over the recordings of Frisell and Chamberlain's improvisations and went to work in the computer, cutting, pasting, looping and assembling the fragments into a semblance of tunes.

That might have been the end of process, but then those looped recordings of the original improvs went back to Frisell who invited bassist Viktor Krauss to add some bass lines, mostly on acoustic bass, to the tunes thus constructed, and Frisell also wrote parts for a duo of cornet and viola, plus some additional guitar parts to go over the top, for some interesting sonic textures and some semblance of a melodic line. The result of that multi-layered process, which took almost two years to complete, is a distinctive, often atmospheric album of mostly electric instrumental music that defies ready categorization, borrowing bits from jazz, rock, blues, hints of country, and occasionally with the ambient quality of new age music. Given the high level of the musicianship, and the creative work of the producers in the studio, it also defies the cliches of loop-based music.

Joining Frisell and Chamberlain, virtually, that is, on overdubs to the looped improvisations, are Ron Miles on cornet, and Eyvind Kang on the viola, in addition to the presence on virtually all the tracks of bassist Viktor Krauss, on whose own recent album Frisell made a guest appearance. Frisell and Krauss have a long association.

The opening piece is the title track Floratone, and it's interesting how the drum figure was shaped into a kind of reggae beat by the producers, while Frisell's guitar line can get somewhat bluesy. The track is typical of the creative sonic pastiche that makes up the CD. <<>>

The following piece is called The Wanderer, and it has a somewhat happier-sounding musical texture <<>> before getting into a kind of ominous ambient section. <<>>

Despite his jazz background and his predilection for atmospheric music, Bill Frisell is also a fan of country and roots music. Mississippi Rising is one of several tracks that have a kind of "down in the swamp" quality, though the lines done by the cornet and viola add a different twist. <<>>

One of the most intriguing tracks, in terms of mixing disparate influences is called Swamped. Frisell plays the piece's riffs in a style reminiscent of the great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, while the rhythm lives up to the track's title, with a funky soul beat thrown in there, too. <<>>

Some of the music can be evocative of a soundtrack for an imaginary film of some sort. If the track called The Passenger were to be played in a film, you would expect something ominous was about to happen. The piece is one of the more engaging on the CD. <<>>

Swampiness seems to be a recurring theme, at least among the titles. Louisiana Lowboat is an example that conjures up a kind of cross between alligators on the bayou some dark back alley in the city. <<>>

Floratone can manage to take a waltz and make it vaguely creepy. The piece is called Monsoon. For me, it's also another rather cinematically suggestive piece. <<>>

One problem that shows up on this CD from time to time, is something that could be expected from loop-based music based on improvisations, and that is the lack of memorable melodic lines. It's not nearly as much a problem as on most loop-based music, but there are instances where the repetition doesn't yield much. An example is the track called Frontiers, despite the added layers of instrumentation. <<>>

Creative artists can elevate prosaic forms to something worthwhile and edifying. Floratone, on their debut CD of the same name have taken the techniques of sample- and loop-based music, and applied them in an innovative way to make a recording that is a long way from the dumb, repetitious sounds that are usually the result when musically unsophisticated pop stars use loops as a means for avoiding the need to play well. It's been pointed out that back in the 1960s and 1970s, Miles Davis and his producer Teo Macero used something like this technique on albums like Bitches Brew on which long improvisations were spliced together and rearranged into more coherent music. Floratone adds the step of orchestrating on top of the tracks that were assembled from fragments of improvisations. The result makes for generally fascinating listening, and perhaps even the source for a game in which participations to construct the best movie scene that would be suggested by this music.

Sonically, we'll give the CD and A-minus. All that sound manipulation takes its toll on clarity and fidelity, but there are quite a few interesting sonic moments. The dynamic range, the span between loud and soft, is mediocre.

Guitarist Bill Frisell has been involved with a lot of interesting projects over the years. Floratone is one of his most intriguing. It may not be an album for those interested in pop songs with words, but it makes for great listening on a number of different levels.

(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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