People who truly enjoy free jazz have a particular relationship to music. To clarify what I mean by this, a simile may be in order. The vast majority of people like pets to some degree. Then there are those who, like the friendly Archaic Triad staff, really like pets – perhaps they even go to shows, and know a little something about breeding. And then there are those who, you know, really like pets. Free jazz people belong in this latter category, except the object of their – how to put this – “affection” is music.
This analogy is not the paragon of intellectual stringency it seems to be at first glance, though. The proclivities of free jazz aficionados and musicians tend to give rise to at least one characteristic less prominent among unmarried farmers – a great reservoir of raw musical skill. This skill may often be wasted, spent on endless sessions of bar side live jamming, obnoxiously loudly, right next to me trying to have a conversation and get drunk. When put to better use, it can work wonders.
A-Sun Amissa, an “instrumental music collective founded and led by Richard Knox”, illustrates this point very well with latest effort The Gatherer. The album comes with a list of guest musicians as long as your arm, with most of them playing several interesting instruments, possibly at once. There are flutes, clarinets, viola, hurdy-gurdy, cello and of course saxophone, even while field recordings, electronics and good old fashioned electric guitars play a role as well. Drones, improv and the subtle construction of ambient atmospheres – such are the principal elements of The Gatherer. The result is a record which can be approached in at least two ways.
It can be analyzed and listen to as a work of technical skill, with many sound sources and instruments utilized in both unusual and common ways to show how much you can do with a large collective of musicians and a big pile of musical ideas. For the free jazz crowd described above, this is probably a perfectly viable route.
To those of us who come at this from an “underground” perspective as it were, it may feel closer at hand to try to take this in as a massive piece of atmospheric music. We would then focus on the overall, somber mood. Floating between the dark and the dreamlike, The Gatherer is largely accessible as a dark ambient, electronic album with lots of field recorded sound sources. At regular intervals things take off in one direction or another, instrumentally as well as vocally, usually in ways you would not hear on more generic, say, dark ambient albums. Spoken word, saxophone outrages and peculiar melodies move quickly to the forefront, only to fade back into the pond of drones. Sometimes, we get a sense of dark nature scenery vistas, sometimes of 80’s action milieus a’la Lethal Weapon. It’s a bumpy, but supremely interesting, ride.
In the final analysis it may be best to take the middle road here, absorbing A-Sun Amissa’s music as one massive block of atmospheric sound painting, while being aware of its complex, high-resolution texture. If you’re not activating your mind at all, the sonic landscape may come across as largely agreeable, but disjointed and sometimes mindlessly interrupted. If you engage slightly more, actively listening to the dreamy, FX-drenched drones and examining their relationship to the brass, reed and woodwind, you will get more out of this album. The Gatherer does work fine as background music too, but if you add a little cerebrality, it truly comes alive. It’s obscure, atmospheric music created by musicians – people who, you know, really like music. And it shows.