Rhys Chatham is probably still best known for the guitar-based work that has made up a large part of his career as composer and bandleader. His Guitar Trio dates back to the punk era, but it still forms the basis for many of the performances Chatham puts on with musicians around the world. Similarly, his “guitar orchestra” pieces, comprising 100 or even 400 guitarists playing epic concerts, have kept the composer in the headlines in recent years. But Chatham claims to have grown tired of making guitar music and has often spoken in interviews and essays about his preference for the trumpet, which he took up in the early 1980s and began composing pieces for in the following decade.
Chatham recently described his playing style as “Don Cherry meets Jon Hassell meets Bill Dixon,” which seems apt. In his playing, one can detect Cherry’s freedom, Hassell’s effects and minimalism, and Dixon’s dark, sustained tones. The first trumpet recordings Chatham released (on Ninja Tune in the late 1990s) used heavy distortion to make the trumpet sound like guitar feedback and mixed this sound with electronic beats, but he now seems less interested in working with such beats or in pursuing his previously stated desire to make the trumpet sound like Tony Iommi’s guitar playing. There is a move away from distortion, with greater emphasis placed on the dynamic range of the instrument untreated.
That said, once a layerer always a layerer it seems, and on Outdoor Spell, the trumpet is explored for its textural, suggestive qualities as much as for its direct, melodic communication. Chatham is a participatory composer, one who would rather be involved in collaborating with musicians in the creative process than working alone with a score, and these pieces sound less composed, less conceptualized even, than his famous guitar works. I’ve no idea whether the album’s title is supposed to refer to a short period of time or to a magical process, but I’m tempted to go with the latter, as Chatham’s music has long been one of alchemy. The channeling of hundreds of guitars’ worth of base metal into sonic gold is nothing if not alchemical. The arsenal is smaller here, the materials less prone to magic. Yet something still happens: sound unfolds, reality is remade, transformation takes place.
What spells are these? What do they call into being? Should we read the album as a journey in which a change comes over the travelers who participate, musician and listener alike? Maybe we can hear these four pieces as progressions from simplicity to complexity. The opening, “simple” title track uses just Chatham’s voice and trumpet and deploys a drone for much of its seven and a half minutes. Chatham and Jon Hassell were both students of the singer Pandit Pran Nath in the 1970s, and the influence of Hindustani classical singing can be detected in this piece. There is an incantory power here, as voice and horn move together and apart, and perception drifts between illusion and insight.
At 18 minutes, “Crossing The Sword Bridge Of The Abyss” (title!) is the longest piece here. It’s a confusing one, comprising several layers of sound. One level has Chatham communicating via spurts of frantic trumpet, another finds him engaged in long, drawn-out tones, shifting slowly from one register to another. Most disconcertingly, the sonic palimpsest is further populated by a kind of anti-playing, or failed playing, in which the trumpeter’s breath is heard alongside un-noted trumpet farts. At one point, these noises coalesce into something that resembles the rhythmic squelch of an analog synth and gives the piece a techno vibe that places it not so far from Chatham’s Ninja Tune output. As far as our “journey” goes, it suggests an inability to get over the abyss.
Still, as in any good sword and sorcery epic, we make it over, after all, only to find “Corn Maiden’s Rite” taking us further into the wilds. Sonically, this is ritual as fantasized in mondo films, Beatriz Rojas’s cajon providing a beat like muffled jungle drums and Chatham’s trumpet shrieking in ecstatic devotion. As a collaboration, it’s more effective, to my ears, than “The Magician,” the final, longish track on which Chatham’s trumpet is joined by the electric guitar of French free improviser Jean-Marc Montera and the frenetic drum work of New York-based Kevin Shea (who plays with Talibam!, Mostly Others Do the Killing, and Peter Evans Quartet, among other lineups).
“The Magician” initially sounds like a free improvisation, Chatham’s “composed by” credit analogous, perhaps, to Ornette Coleman’s on Free Jazz. In places, “The Magician” echoes the dynamics of Free Jazz (which, of course, prominently featured Don Cherry, one of Chatham’s trumpet influences), though it’s closer to contemporary, narrative-less free improv than Coleman’s double-quartet project (which, despite its undeniable brilliance, now sounds strangely conventional in its narrative thrust, as if the shape of that jazz has come and gone, the question of “tomorrow” answered). But the presence of multiple trumpet sounds on “The Magician” attest to a different type of composition, one in which improvised recordings are layered to make a new text.
Chatham has certainly carved out a new space for himself on this recording, one that allows him to answer the question posed on last year’s The Bern Project: “Is There Life After Guitar Trio?” Apparently there is, and it involves trumpet improv.