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Mylab's Boundary-Crossing Experiments In Sound

Layering folk on top of funk, crossing continents and genres, combining archival sounds with live performance and electronic manipulation, the new record from Mylab is not so much an eclectic mix but an organic whole that finds the common denominator among those diverse elements and approaches.

The latest project from Seattle composer/pianist Wayne Horvitz and producer/engineer Tucker Martine defies categorization: is it jazz, electronic, or something entirely other? Yet the album — from the percolating funk beat of opener "Pop Client," through the haunting Malian drone of "Phil and Jerry" to the hallucinatory, jazz-flavored closer "Chi Chi Marina" — never feels like a post-modern collage, but rather a unified musical statement.

Martine and Horvitz have worked together before, collaborating in Horvitz's Four Plus One ensemble. Martine has also produced several Horvitz albums. The partnership works, Horvitz said during a recent interview, because "whatever strong points either of us have in terms of skills, we both look for the same thing in music — which is real feeling, whether it is Skip James or Morton Feldman or whatever." He adds that, "I'm not interested in music, music is a pleasure for me like food or whatever — and that is what I look for in music."

Both recoil at the idea behind most fusion — putting styles and sounds together haphazardly and without regard for commonality. "Juxtaposing sounds for the sake of irony or cleverness is utterly useless to me," Horvitz said. "If people see it as juxtaposing styles, that is their trip; I see it [or hear it] as sounding great and moving me emotionally and aesthetically somehow. The commonality is just obvious to me."

Martine agreed. "Wayne and I don't talk about music to each other in terms of genres, so any juxtaposition you hear happened much more organically than that. To me, most instrumental music styles are some extrapolation of a folk form anyway. We never set out to make a super eclectic record; we just went down the road that interested both of us, and I guess it's a wide road. If the record works at all, though, it could illuminate the common ground between some musical lines that were probably invented by marketers to begin with."

The album, now out on Terminus, draws on an extraordinary range of musicians, including bluegrass banjo player Danny Barnes, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, violinist Evyind Kang, drummer Bobby Previte and singer/songwriter Robin Holcombe (who is married to Horvitz), among others. "All of these folks are people we work with constantly — they are all friends, and most of them live in Seattle," Horvitz explained. "Even before Terminus agreed to do the record, we had started just for kicks, and Bill [Frisell] and Tim [Young] and Reggie Watts and a few others had laid down some tracks."

Many of the tracks started with "scratchy old field recordings" Martine had collected from archival sources or from his travels in Africa. Then, in several cases, musicians were brought in to replicate and expand on these musical ideas. For instance, Martine explained that "Land Trust Picnic," one of the album's best tracks, "started with a short slide guitar loop from some really old blues record that was so scratchy you could hardly make out the notes."

He continued, "Once we had built around it, it became obvious that it needed to have more clarity to it, so we replaced it with a slide electric guitar played by Doug Weiselman."

The album draws much of its soul from the blues, a music whose appeal to Horvitz is so deep that it can hardly be verbalized. "That is sort of like me trying to explain my genetic code," he said. "There is a whole lot of music I love in the world, but American blues music was my first love, and you never forget your first love."

The track "Varmint," with its looping, swooning violin, shuffling drums and wordless vocals, is perhaps, the cut most heavily influenced by this musical form, but there are traces all over the album, which give the music much of its power. "At the heart of blues is something so real, so woven into the fabric of people's daily lives," Martine said. "Since we knew we would end up doing a lot of cutting and pasting, I wanted to be sure we were cutting and pasting a source that had a lot of substance and feeling in it. Hopefully we didn't lose sight of that. Otherwise you might as well be playing Nintendo."

Like many other musicians, Martine has sought out the roots of the blues in Africa, particularly Mali, where he travelled in 1998. The track "Phil & Jerry" includes vocals from Mali's Aminata Diabate, as well as Kassemadi Kamissogo on ngoni, a traditional instrument Martine says may be a forerunner of the a well-known American instrument. "The ngoni's strings [which are made of thin fishing line like the kora] are lashed to the neck with movable strips of leather, and then fed over a fan-shaped bridge at the far end of the body," he said. "The string closest to the player actually produces the highest pitch, and the player plucks it with his thumb, just like a 5-string banjo. This feature, coupled with the fact that the ngoni's body is a drum rather than a box, provides strong evidence that the ngoni is the African ancestor of the banjo."

The Mylab album was recorded in three different studios, with initial composing and recording at Horvitz's Other Room Music, overdubs at Martin's Flora Studio and final overdubs and mixing at Trillium Lane Studio on Bainbridge island. Although Mylab is primarily a studio project, Horvitz and Martine did gather most of their collaborators for one live performance. "I transcribed what I could, and we did it one night in Seattle and it was great," Horvitz said. "I wouldn't say it 'sounded' like the record, but we did cover most of the tunes and it was fantastic. Most of the players on the album made the gig, which was a miracle."

Both Horvitz and Martine agree on one thing: listeners can expect more Mylab records in the future. "There's a lot more where that one came from," Martine said. — Jennifer Kelly [Wednesday, June 9, 2004]


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