FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Caroline Mähl


The collective imagination of X-Communication

A loose shutter squeaking in the wind,
a cat mewling the lovesick blues,
the lid dropping off a garbage can.
The opening of the Berlin performance is a grainy,
black-and-white movie called
Scenes From A Back Alley.

X-Communication existed in theory long before the group stepped onto a stage. In 1987, when Lawrence "Butch" Morris met Martin Schütz and Hans Koch in New York, all parties could look back on many years of experience with different forms of group improvisation -a condition that boded well for a joint project. Morris, happily, is not the kind of jazzman who jealously guards the (territory. As he says, "The geographic exchange of musics . . . has enriched this community and keeps it steadfast in its mission to express the moment." in the first brainstorming sessions, X- Communication was blueprinted as a 16 to 18-strong big band, and although it was soon scaled down to a marginally more practicable octet, its basic formation, including vocals and strings, remained unchanged. The original plan was to assemble the group around a unit core of Morris's trio with J.A. Deane and Wayne Horvitz but shortly before rehearsals began - a Willisau jazz festival commission providing the necessary financial background - Horvitz fell ill and Hans Reichel stepped in, bringing daxophone and a clutch of multi-necked, multi-fretted home-maces along. After Willisau, a performance in Cologne and an ensuing one-year break, the group played an overwhelmingly powerful concert in Nickelsdorf. Popular and critical reaction led to a more substantial schedule in 1990. The group's performance at the Total Music Meeting takes up the main part of this album.

..Voice, saxophone and trombone gradually in hard outline and clamour for attention. A long-sustained guitar drone wedges itself beneath them, and cranks the ebullient company up a notch or two to - where?...

X-Communication in its 1990 incarnation seems to have reached a degree of mutual understanding that allows each musician more room to move. That's to say, few sacrifices need be made to any streamlined collective identity. The group is strong enough to support almost all aspects of the players' creativity.

Not Chaos-like, together crushed and bruised,
But, as the world harmoniously confused:
Where order in variety we see,
And where, though all things differ, all agree.
Alexander Pope

..Saxophone and voice toss minimalistic, staccato-accentuated phrases back and forth, then hold their breath as a haunted corner line rises in an "Ascenseur pour I'Echafaut" mood, moving even the hard-boiled trombone to grunts of approval.

A perennial traveller between the genres, Butch Morris composes music for film, theatre and dance and has drawn up new guidelines for the conductor's role as channel and catalyst of the creative process in improvisation. The experience gained from these projects is constantly reinvested into his instrumental work and makes him a formidable ensemble player, sufficiently enlightened to subordinate his abilities, always, to the dynamics of the moment. On these recordings, he seems to absorb and condense the speeding sound-events, analyzing their character, contrasting them with atmospheric counterpoint that opens up new spaces for the others to fill.

..a little jazzy interlude, then cut to an oriental scene, a geisha's dream over sparse guitar-as-ersatz-koto.

Shelley Hirsch's near-acrobatic vocal abilities enable her to react instantly to any ideas or atmospheric suggestions her surroundings have to offer, and to lake on, chameleon-like, virtually every imaginable tone colour. She possesses the sensitivity and style, moreover, to move with equal fluency as verbal communicator. The combination of "instant composition" and "instant poetry" (in English or in spontaneously invented mock-languages), the occasional country and western song, and her strong stage presence make her the group's natural focal point, a spell-binding performer.

...impatient even in repose, the dreaming geisha floats off among turbulent, bubbling clouds...

The American section is completed by Jason Hwang and J.A. Deane, both player/composers of broad stylistic bandwidth and, like Morris, frequently toiling in the cracks between the idioms. Deane uses computer electronics to create rising and subsiding layers of modified natural sounds. A difficult player to classify, this "sonic architect", as much at home with the jump-cut cartoon minimalism of John Zorn in Jon Hassell's spacious Fourth World elegies, has worked extensively with Morris's large and small groups. So has Hwang, the violinist singled out by Morris as one of the most distinctive of improvisers. Also a composer, Hwang, of Chinese ancestry, wrote the score for the film The Emperor's Eye. Art And Power in China. He has played with assorted AACM and "downtown" ensembles.

....Bom de bom bom. De bombom. Hans Reichel, temporarily possessed by the spirit of Bo Diddley, brings down the house. Lovens rocks out, sort of. Saxophone and voice zig zag madly through the falling masonry..

More reserved in the early performances, Reichel is now able fully to integrate the wry humour and stylistic versatility of his solo work . . . which will require no further introduction to followers of FMP's productions. He is one of the guitar greats, indubitably.

Hans Koch found space to say something inside Cecil Taylor's crowded European Orchestra refer to the invaluable Alms/Tiergarten album and has been gaining in strength in X-Communication, his exchanges with Hirsch accounting for this album's most compelling moments as he works a range from blowtorch aggression to earnest pleadings to coos and warbles.

Gradually, the energy-level subsides. A whirlwind four of mutant-ethno border discotheques, a last raucous reed eruption, and then a winding-down, to the accompaniment of a slightly-skewed lullaby. It's a breathing space. It won't last long..

Cellist Martin Schütz is, with Koch, one of the shaping forces in new Swiss music, their trio Koch/Schütz/Käpelli being a wide-awake chamber unit that draws upon the languages of free jazz and contemporary composition. Schütz's electric 5-string cello often provides a fundament in X-Communication, a bottom line, blending texturally with the trombone.

And finally - or just as often, firstly - there's Paul Lovens. A man of few words offstage, yet a drummer who's mastered the art of the interjection, using all surfaces of his selected drums and cymbals almost conversationally, querying and challenging - or underlining and codifying - all of his colleagues' comments .

Time to move. into an atomized latin groove anchored by sustained cornet and voice, a folk song, blues reminiscences, Hendrixian guitar, yodels, a jungle's worth of fauna, sci-fi weirdnesses . . . the sound of surprise, anyone?

This album is loaded with it . . . and reveals new attributes even to those fortunate enough to witness X-Communication's early performances in '88 and '89. The players have made a minor quantum leap, their common language distinguished by its subtlety, diversity and wit.

Butch Morris once said: "For me, there are but two sounds worth listening to: the sound of the mind working and the sound of the mind that has worked." So often here, individual imaginations momentarily fuse into a collective mind that coordinates an exchange of ideas with uncanny sureness.

Translation: Steve Lake

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