Reviews of Recent Recordings
By 1985 when Picnic was recorded, Vermont-born globetrotter Tristan Honsinger had acquired and then largely discarded a classical cello education, had played in Western European improvising units big and small (duets with Derek Bailey, Company weeks, the Globe Unity and ICP orchestras), had performed street music and street theater in Montreal and Paris and around Italy. He had put together the group that plays on Picnic – This, That and the Other – while living outside Florence, and continued on with it after relocating to Amsterdam. (A typical Tristan touch: all those voiced fricative th sounds made the band’s name a tongue-twister for Italians and the Dutch.) TT&tO was as cosmopolitan as he was, rooted in Japan (trumpeter Toshinori Kondo), South Africa (Sean Bergin on soprano, alto and tenor), France (Steve Lacy’s bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel), the US (drummer Michael Vatcher) and Italy (Tiziana Simona, singing in Italian or fitfully scrutable English). Picnic was the sextet’s debut, recorded at the resonant Frascati theater by Dick Lucas, the most intrepid and tireless documenter of new music then coming out of Amsterdam, and issued on his DATA label.
Not that Picnic was improvised music, exactly. Honsinger said he assembled the band to feature his songs, not all of which have lyrics. “Restless” kicks things off with a bang. The ‘80s was the age of the big snare drum sound, and Vatcher’s walloping backbeats make Phil Collins sound puny, and did it without compression or noise-gating. Avenel thrumbles right with him, as the horns peck in harmony behind Simona, who declaims very like Dagmar Krause with ‘70s unplaceables Slapp Happy (even if you found that band in the rock bins). It’s a perfect miniature, under a minute.
Kondo, that brash improvising trumpeter who went into pop and electronica, made a fantastic fit with Honsinger. Hear them also on 1982’s What Are You Talking About? in quartet with Peter Kowald and Sabu Toyozumi (DIW), where Kondo comes on like an avant Buddy Bolden, and the cellist’s melodies get a good workout. On Picnic as well, Kondo’s chipper brass tattoos are connected to early New Orleans parade bands more than trends in contemporary improvising. Sean Bergin often plays soprano, in the same chirpy register, and their meld softens the surface of Honsinger’s spiky tunes.
His material gives them plenty to work with. Easy to hear why Honsinger got on with Misha Mengelberg: he’s a natural melodist and ready contrapuntalist, and the player mostly likely to screw up his own music. As in ICP, subgroups break things up; there are trios (voice and strings; cello and horns), quartet with soprano, and quintets without voice. Some pieces are short and pithy – like the two-and-a-half–minute rocker “Laly,” with trumpet and alto in boppy unison, which squeezes in an improvised string duo.
There are also longer mini-suites. On “It’s Likely You” Sean uses all three of his horns in quick succession. “Violets” presents three main themes (and an interlude) in six minutes: the first is a soprano lament with trumpet obbligatos over Vatcher’s ashcan 2/4; then a marchy movement with a catchy, revolving, easy-melody riff (one of Tristan’s that sounds like one of Sean’s kwela tunes); and finally a slow stately theme, salon music for courtly dancing, approaching Maarten Altena quartet territory. On the first part of “Orient Express,” Simona does some plosive scatting, front-loading open vowels with p’s, b’s and d’s.
Tristan and deep baritone Sean occasionally vocalize as well, and wander into street-theater territory; the absence of visual cues makes these vignettes that much more mysterious. “Teeth” has some marble-mouthed business about a dental exam. (You get only a hint of it, but Tristan and Sean were the Laurel and Hardy of improvised music theater.) That street-performance esthetic comes through other ways. The instantly pleasing tunes pull you in, and if Simona’s wordless oohing or a Sean solo runs on beyond the point of making its point, vexatious repetitions go with street work: they encourage folks who’ve already tossed you coins to move on, making room for fresh marks.
When it comes to musical theatrics along the arid border between Nashville and free play, Eugene Chadbourne (another Kondo collaborator) owns the territory. He’s produced no finer or purer or funnier demonstration than 1980’s There’ll Be No Tears Tonight. The sleeve proclaimed the contents as “free improvised country & western bebop,” and that’s not too far off. Chadbourne can be maddeningly offhand about live-recording and picking music to release, but this crisp-sounding program (for his Parachute label) was a glorious exception: a brace of tunes by such masters of the American popular song as Roger Miller, Bobby Braddock, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson. It’s partly an anthology of self-deprecatory first-person narratives: songs of jilted men of mordant wit.
In hindsight, we can see Eugene was crossing over, from Lower East Side pioneer to gonzo king of the improvising bar band. Three tracks are for quartet, with ‘70s chum John Zorn on alto and baritone, and David Licht on drums. On a couple of those Zorn’s obbligatos can sound a bit “ironic,” as if he’s too good for the material. Virginian Tom Cora’s cello is a better fit, variously serving as rhythm guitar, walking bass and country fiddle. (Adding Mark Kramer on keyboards, that lineup would work as The Chadbournes, which would evolve into Eugene’s long-running acid test Shockabilly.)
On that same quartet’s “Honey Don’t,” you get the country and the downtown one after the other. Better integrated is Merle Haggard’s “Swingin’ Doors,” which starts in fast swingtime, on a round of alto and guitar trades, before spinning off into noisy but not too loud Loisaida free space – swing always makes a good launching pad – before Eugene eases us into the lyric, about a dude who’s moved into the local bar. Zorn’s answerbacks are in joke mode again, but in fairness, Armstrong could sound cheeky backing Bessie Smith too. The string obbligatos on the last chorus are a (virtual) scream.
The B-side quintet has lap steel guitarist Scott Manring and upright bassist Robbie Link, who play more straight-up country style, and sound totally unfazed by EC’s abrupt vocal or guitar eruptions, maybe because his affection for the material is unmistakable. Singing, he can do a little nanny-goat Elvis, or squeal like a pig on a canoe trip, but delivers Hank’s “My Heart Would Know” with plaintive sincerity. When he and Licht rocket into free space, the country cats patiently wait for their return.
The cream of the album is Chadbourne solo; his Johnny Paycheck medley is a master class in creative accompaniment. He’s like a lounge pianist on Benzedrine. On “The Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised,” his flatpicked obbligatos amplify the line he’s just sung, the sound of handcuffs being applied being especially effective. Braddock’s masterwork “Georgia in a Jug” concerns a man on the far side of a broken engagement. Knowing he’ll never have that dream honeymoon of seeing Mexico City by bus, he’s taking his world tour down at the corner bar. Eugene’s guitar adds a tiny umbrella to each exotic drink: mariachi for tequila, a stately syncopation for rum, a quick Hawaiian slide with his mai tai. Nashville songwriters knew how to make ‘em heartfelt and funny at once, and showed him how to split the difference.
To stretch the shortish program, two bonus tracks are in familiar Chadbourne lo-fi discursive mode. A long solo “Richmond Dobro Massacre” combines a feedback episode with the usual squeak, clatter and dead air, scraping and sanding, overdriven vocals, a shorted-out guitar cord, and finally a couple more (uncredited) oldies parked for your amusement, including a 1962 #3 hit from the rock canon. Also some crazy fast double-stroke picking in tempo, pointing the way for Brandon Seabrook. Whatever else Chadbourne is, he’s a fearsome guitarist.