The difficulty of approaching music with words was aptly put by Henry Threadgill in the following: “The process of talking about and defining music literally is one of monumental proportion. Yet this tradition does have a long and uneven history and many precedents. To me this proportion is like trying to define apples with pears, or solving the problem of “if you want to kill the dog, why do you feed it.” There are elements in the music that are often defiant to definition and tend to exist outside the parameters of quantification. We are always confronted by an unnameability that emerges in the quest of attempting to make sense of sound through language.
As a writer, this perspective usually leaves me swimming in an existential sonic crisis where I am trying to make sense of how we are contaminated by sound and less so the proverbial tendency to explain the technical appreciation that emerges. Part of doing this means that we must resist the urge of hiding behind the comfort of adjectives and rather pursue what Roland Barthes [paraphrased] puts as capturing the complex ways music challenges and even afflicts the listener instead of reducing it to a reassuringly familiar set of prescribed qualities. For Barthes, the point isn’t about “struggling against the adjective” rather it is about working with through the tension of language and music.
I am interested in doing this in a way that does not totally erode or prescribe imagination or direct the listener’s ear towards a constructed way of thinking about music. I would like to think about Chris Williams’ album titled “LIVE” in this context – mainly focusing on how this album arrives, the sonic instincts that inform it and less about the inherent aesthetic descriptive qualities. I think this approach actually invites us to come into our own intonation as listeners. Sometimes adjectives restrain imagination and I often wonder what someone might have heard if an album had not been introduced primarily by its descriptive qualities. So much of this review focuses on the creative decisions that make this music because I am interested in an artistic programme where musicians are central to the meaning of their music even in the context of a review while taking into consideration that once the music externalises it takes on different meanings. This interest extends to aesthetic choices that musicians make in so far as it relates to arrangement, editorial choices and the inclusion of particular instruments.
The Chris Williams Quintet comes out of a gig recorded live in Los Angeles and it consists of a stellar cohort of musicians with Williams on trumpet and electronics, Patrick Shiroishi on saxophone, and the rhythm section is held together by Eric Revis on bass, Joshua White on piano and Guillermo E. Brown on drums. This album is a product of Williams’ curiosity at the time and interest in the interaction between these musicians who were playing together for the first time. Reflecting on what motivated this formation he told me: “I was interested in the improvisational potentialities and less so in directing how people should play.” LIVE is a product of trusted musicianship and spontaneity where the central desire is to see what people do with space collectively under conditions where there is no prescribed direction. This is a white label release under a subsidiary label called cow: Music and it comes off two hours of recording and roughly twenty eight minutes make it into the album. Throughout this record, Williams plays a frugal acoustic role and much of his contributions take shape in the post recording phrase mainly through editing and the inclusion of electronic sound arrangements that connect the recording into a cohesive improvisational album. He is quite clear that “there is a certain amount of composition in between the improvisation and this can be heard in the layered rhythmic arrangements in the first half of ‘side A’ before the session moves into a picking improvisational style where sound bounces across instruments in an aesthetic fashion that centres the cinematic character of each instrument.
Once the music was recorded it took on another life and in the editing process, Williams realised that he wanted to explore editing methodologies in the established yet evolving tradition that musicians like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock chartered in the seventies. Electric sonic collaging is a tradition that takes centre stage in this record and it operates as a research device that challenges acoustic dominance towards a new way of existing in music. It is a device with its own important source of meaning that demands our attention, in Williams’ view: “You cannot – not reckon with electricity and the technologies at our finger tips . . . it’s not to say acoustics don’t have a space but how can we give acoustic qualities a new life again.” The insistence of electricity was also championed by his mentor, multireedist Bennie Maupin who he recalls emphasizing the need for new sounds.
Some of Williams’ editorial instincts were motivated by a desire to be part of a burgeoning scene of post-genre avant-garde musicians in spaces like New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago who have been experimenting with editorial devices and forging new sonic frontiers. His editorial choices still maintain an atmosphere of presence – there is a distinct desire to keep the live effect in the record and this I feel is supported by the inclusion of faint exclamatory voices from the gig in the record. Presence is sacrament and it drives the way this album plays.
The album is divided into ‘side A’ and side B’ and it plays through with the synergy of one long recording. I loved the fact that there are no track titles and there is no traditional stimulant for us to make sense of the music. At times titles tend to operate as a springboard from which we imagine or experience the music, in this album, ‘side A’ and ‘side B’ are blank spaces, almost to say, the titling is open to the listener, whatever subjective meaning arises we can hold on to it. The prompt here comes from the empty spaced titling. These aesthetic choices are emblematic of the actual music because for the most part the sound that comes out of this quintet is conceptual and driven by a feeling rather than a particular sound. The instruments are devices that communicate the meeting of different personalities and how they respond to each other’s creative instincts.
LIVE is not always melodic or rhythmic and as a result it presents itself as something that is quite challenging to “musical” ears because the compositional register is predominantly formless. There are transcendental moments where it feels like we are being ushered into a new vortex of kindred spirited sounds that sonically live up to the multiple unutterable existential feelings that arise from being in the world. This album helps us confide in the future by giving us a sound that belongs where we are going and this done with incredible form and untethered emotion.