Among my favorite tracks on Castanets' First Light's Freeze (2005) are the interludes. In these minute-long pieces, upright bass, electric guitar, and cymbals melt into a reverb-y dream sequence. At first brush, I thought these segues too mystical, all pot-smoke and mirrors. But when I listened closely, I found them to be subtly dynamic. These songs don't just blur the line between the organic and the inorganic -- they seem to collapse the boundaries between the people making them. On these tracks, Ray Raposa and his collaborators achieve a true group-sound. For me, the interludes provide powerful images not only of Castanets' daring aesthetic, but also of the loving give-and-take on which all genuine communities are built.
Moreover, those set pieces introduced me to Chris Schlarb, whose improvising jazz ensemble Create (!) accompanied Castanets in them. I soon checked out Create (!)'s A Prospect of Freedom, which ended up being the best new jazz I heard in 2006. Comprised of gentle textural explorations and flesh-flaying guitar irruptions, Prospect conveyed, with unyielding intensity, an array of moods ranging from loneliness to joyfulness. And thanks to Schlarb's scrupulous editing, the session felt like an album, not an uncut free-for-all.
A man possessing varied musical interests and a daunting work ethic, Schlarb has recorded with an inordinately large number of artists and operated Sounds Are Active, a label for experimental artists, since 2001. I haven't had time to take in all of his work, but I've come to enjoy a number of his projects, especially Create (!) and I Heart Lung, his free-jazz duo with drummer Tom Steck. My previous encounters with Schlarb didn't, however, prepare me for Twilight and Ghost Stories, the first album he has released under his own name. Until now, Schlarb's music framed and captured a moment; here, he and a cast of 30-plus contributers tell a story.
Twilight chronicles a four-year stretch that begins with Schlarb at rock-bottom, divorced, unemployed, and no longer interested in making music. As he explains in his liner notes, he decided one dreary afternoon, on a lark, to record a rainstorm outside his apartment. When he replayed that tape for himself, his creativity resurfaced. Soon, he developed an idea for an epic piece of music and began asking friends to send him recordings which he would edit into his composition. Artists as diverse as Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors), Bhob Rainey (nmperign), and John Ringhofer (Half-Handed Cloud) replied, sending Schlarb enough material for a 40-minute piece.
As you might expect, Twilight lacks an overarching musical theme. You'll hear no recurring motifs. But the album's diversity of styles, instruments, and moods doesn't sap it of coherence. Generally speaking, this material is grounded in jazz and the blues, drawing generously from these idioms in its most compelling movements. The work opens in a rapturous post-bop tremble, piano, acoustic bass, organ, and hand percussion lapping over one another in a rhythmically decentered mode reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders's Impulse! recordings. About five minutes later, Schlarb pits a waterfall-like piano exercise by Sufjan Stevens against impressionistic cymbal work from Adam Garcia (a pivotal player in both the psych rock and free-jazz undergrounds). And just when a cycle of humming electric guitar noise and laptop electronics begins to steer us in an abstract, post-rock direction, Schlarb strums some rustic Delta blues, leading the way during the record's spartan middle passage. Tracing a line from the roots of American folk music to the most vibrant of contemporary live-music subcultures, Twilight is jazz in the same sense as the genre-smashing stuff the Art Ensemble of Chicago played from the late ‘60s through the early ‘80s. Which is to say that it both epitomizes and transcends the genre.
Like the material that first attracted me to Schlarb, Twilight is, above all else, neighborly. No section drifts too far out to sea or overstays its welcome. Dissonance and abstraction are present, but they're used dramatically, always in service to the larger narrative Schlarb has crafted. Sure, this album's generically and technologically innovative. But it's about sharing stories, not blowing minds. In a world that allows the paranoid, antisocial, and self-obsessed to abuse art as a forum for vapid "self-expression," Twilight and Ghost Stories is not a Statement, but a gift.