Saturday, September 25, 2010

Middle Passage

One thing I really picked up from Jason was his intensity, focus and commitment to the work. He aimed for mixes that broke barriers and reached for new levels of sonic expression. It's hard to get across just how intense the space was when he was working. You had to be at your highest degree of presence and attention, more so than you ever thought possible because that's where he was at. He was going for sounds, especially in the low end, that would present powerful music, such as the Ginger Baker album, Middle Passage, to be heard more powerfully than ever before; to strike a Universal chord, create a vibrational pattern that would, perhaps, resonate throughout the planet. At times it would seem that Jason would mix as if the fate of the World hung in the balance. He loved what he was doing which probably contributed significantly to the success his work enjoyed.

Bill Laswell introduced me to Jason, and the 3 of us began to work together in 1989 right at about the same time Bill Graham and Amensty International brought the first tour of Western music to the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. These events took place only a few months before the peaceful collapse of Communism and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.

One example of how strong the mood became for me was during the mix of the Swans cover of Can't Find My Way Home written by Steve Winwood and originally performed by Blind Faith, the 'super-group' with Winwood, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech.

Come down off your throne and leave your body alone
Somebody must change

You are the reason I've been waiting so long

Somebody holds the key

Well I'm near the end and I just ain't got the time

And I'm wasted and I can't find my way home...

Somehow, the combination of the way Jarboe sang it, the music, and the fact of living the song from the inside out by helping Jason set-up the mix and hearing it over and over again, put me in a mood where, within the confines of the control room, it really felt like a life or death situation. I was mindful of the song's context and history, and the self-destructive excesses it was obviously addressing. I really felt it could go either way, toward life or to death. Trilok's pitch bending, slower tabla rhythm helped produce this effect. Karl Berger, founder of the influential Woodstock based Creative Music Studio, had added a nice bell like counter line on a xylophone that seemed to draw in an angelic presence to guard the vulnerability of balancing on the edge that came through Jarboe's vocal delivery. Even as the lyrics look hopeless, the music, the performance, and the haunting dreamy nature of the audio space Jason created, gave the effect of seeing a distant light at the end of a long dark tunnel suggesting the possibility of transformation, redemption and change.

Mixing Ginger Baker's Middle Passage cd with Bill and Jason remains a career highlight for me. The album is musically very powerfully way over the top especially in the rhythm section which besides Ginger included Aiyb Djieng, Mar Gueye, and Magette Fall on African percussion, and Bill Laswell, Jah Wobble, and Jonas Helborg on bass. Nicky Skopelitis contributes passionate, soul searching guitar playing. Faruk Tekbilek adds a rich, prayer call-like Middle Eastern element with the ney ( a Turkish flute) and the zurna.

Not knowing what it is, I looked up "zurna" and got this description that appears related.

The zurna (also called surnay, birbynė, lettish horn, surla, sornai, zournas, zurma) is a multinational outdoor wind instrument, usually accompanied by a davul (bass drum) in Anatolian folk music. The name is from Turkish zurna, itself derived from Persian سرنای surnāy, composed of سور sūr “banquet, feast” and نای nāy “reed, pipe”. Turkmen say that Adam, who was moulded from clay, had no soul. It is said that it was only due to the melodious zurna-playing Archangel Gabriel could breathe life into Adam. According to a Turkmen legend the main role in zurna invention was played by the devil (note the term ″devil openings", şeytan delikleri, in Turkish for the small apertures on the bell). There is a ritual of inviting guests for a celebration which has survived from ancient times. Two zurna players stand in front of each other, point their instruments upwards and play in unison. While doing this they perform magic circular movements which remind that this ritual used to be linked to shamanism.

I contributed to the tracking by recording Aiyb and Nicky, doing some edits on the 2" tape, and recording Bill doing his famous effect of running hand drums or snares through the old Eventide H910 Harmonizer and randomly changing the pitch and feedback controls to get unpredictably sproingy textural accents.

The peak of watching Jason mix occurred during the mix of the 5th track, Basil, a 4:21 drum solo by Baker. Through extreme, but parallel processing, he created radically different textures in the drum sound which he then, using the SSL automation, brought in and out to create different dynamic sections. I'm hesitant to be more specific about the effects used but I can say that when Jason worked the automation to create or emphasize the different sections it was like watching a virtuoso musical performance. For me, it was like watching Hendrix play the guitar or being in the presence of Ornette Coleman playing the saxophone. Both Bill and I were sitting with Jason at the SSL while this was going on. I had the feeling that Bill was equally aware that we were watching a master at the top of his craft. It's a memory that I'll never forget.

I highly recommend checking out Basil, it's some of the most powerful drumming you'll ever hear. It's about the only drum recording I know of that musically and sonically compares with John Bonham's Moby Dick for a powerfully melodic drum composition.

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