Paul Flaherty Whirl of Nothingness

[Family Vineyard; 2006]

Rating: 4/5

Styles:  jazz
Others: Frank Wright, Chris Corsano, Dredd Foole, C. Spencer Yeh

In the 1990s, Paul Flaherty's recordings finally began to see wide release. Before that, unreceptive New England audiences kept him out of public spaces and ultimately out of work as a musician -- the only way Flaherty could get his music in print was by going the DIY route, and he had to hold down a day job as a house painter to finance his operations. He kept playing, though, and finally found himself able to record for renowned labels like Cadence, Boxholder, and Ecstatic Yod.

Since breaking out of its regional ghetto, Flaherty's music has been touted as flame-carrier in a number of cultural causes. Byron Coley and David Keenan have written at length about the saxophonist's work with drummer Chris Corsano, arguing that the duo realizes the human spirit's innate capacity for ecstatic expression -- a capacity that mainstream culture seeks to suppress. The explanatory anecdotes in The Hated Music's sleeve reveal a secret history of New England's fight to silence improvisational music, coloring the album as a triumphant "Fuck you" to the cultural police. In his liner notes to Flaherty quartet Cold Bleak Heat's It's Magnificent, But It Isn't War, Dredd Foole cites the musicians as allies in the anti-fascist, anit-war (specifically, anti-Iraq War) cause.

It's hard to make a straight read of Flaherty's music, however, because so many tensions exist in it, especially when he plays in a solo setting, as he does on Whirl of Nothingness. Many of his group performances -- especially those with avant-garde rockers like White Out and C. Spencer Yeh -- find him unleashing relentless streams of overblown skronk, but all of these solo pieces begin with melodic, bluesy figures. But then Flaherty plays the blues unlike anyone else, breathing strangulated, wavering lines in "Compassion Lost and Found Again" and launching into skeezy back alley swing in the middle of "Blankets Wear the Naked Fear." As much as he subverts the blues, Flaherty never the less remains tied to the folk form – even when his instrument's wailing like an alien ray gun or a detuned noise guitar, the bar line isn't abandoned. The European free improvisational methods and formal innovations that have infiltrated American jazz's urban centers don't bear on these recordings.

So in many ways, Flaherty isn't quite the radical that his champions construct him to be. As scores of listeners have noted, the bulk of his material rests nicely alongside late-'60s American flame-spewers like Frank Wright, and I'd argue that even his more "out" moments aren't without precedent: just compare the helpless squeals in "If You Step Back Far Enough... It Will Be Alright" to the writhing guitars of Blue Humans and Borbetomagus. Of course, playing within or on the periphery of a tradition shouldn't give critics cause to devalue one's work, and I don't think Keenan or Coley are necessarily proclaiming Flaherty as a great innovator -- the fact that he's making this music and continually perfecting his craft is what's important. Even if we can't place Flaherty firmly within one camp or interpret his music through a readymade rubric, the fact that there's so much here to read in the first place speaks volumes.

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