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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Max Johnson – The Prisoner (NoBusiness, 2014) ****½

Deep Listening Weekend - Day 1

By Martin Schray

The Prisoner was a cult British TV series created by Patrick McGoohan, which has inspired metal and punk bands as different as Iron Maiden, XTC or The Clash. The plot is about a secret service agent who finds himself a prisoner in an isolated village after he decided to resign. The village, in which the individual is reduced to a number (the protagonist is No. 6), is controlled by a mysterious No. 1, although nobody gets to see him. The village is guarded by an elaborate surveillance system, including security personnel and a mysterious balloon-like device that recaptures – or kills – those who try to escape. The village administrators are various No. 2s, who are replaced constantly because of their futile attempts to find out about No. 6’s real reasons to resign. Aesthetically the series is a weird stylistic mix of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, Orwell’s 1984 and James Bond films, but even 45 years after it was created you can still feel its claustrophobic and Kafkaesque mood.

New York-based bassist Max Johnson, a man who has collaborated with artists as various as Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, The Butthole Surfers, Vernon Reid and several bluegrass (!) bands, has been fascinated by this series since he was a kid. But when he decided to compose a suite based on the series he was obviously not interested in interpreting or using the original score, which rather reminds of classic 1960s spy movie soundtracks. Instead Johnson tried to capture the above-mentioned atmosphere.  Even structurally he tried to transform the concepts, the “intricate webs weaved throughout the show, [the] loose ends that never get tied up, and huge questions that are never answered” into music. The music has an episodic character: Johnson said that “some of the tunes represent little moments or episodes, while the beginning and end of the suite signify bigger parts of the story.”

And the album is indeed bookended by the longest tracks, “No. 6: Arrival/No. 58: Orange Alert,” and “No. 2: Once Upon a Time/No. 1: Fallout.”  The first one introduces us to the world of the prisoner and sets the tone for the album – it is a gloomy and oppressive world and the musicians use long, deep and dark tones to illustrate this. The long and almost ethereal beginning is destroyed with a siren-like call by Laubrock’s sax which forces the group to test out the boundaries of the composition – just like No. 6 trying to escape from the village. The latter closes the album with a two-part finale (like the series). Part one begins almost melancholic, as if there was a certain nostalgia in the face of the near end, but the final part (like the episode) flows into chaos with Laubrock and the strings battling wildly and Fujiwara soloing (one of the great moments of the album, since it represents the brutality and action of the last part of the show as well) before the whole piece evolves into a funeral march meandering in a classic bebop improvisation – a final hint to the series when the protagonists finally manage to leave the village.

These two tracks are like blueprints for the other compositions. “No. 12: Schizoid Man/Gemini,” an episode when No. 6 is replaced by a spooky look-alike in order to crash his self, focuses on Maneri’s viola and Laubrock’s sax stalking each other mysteriously. And one of the more brutal episodes – “No. 24: Hammer Into Anvil”, in which a paranoid, sadistic No. 2 has taken over – begins with a painful sax call, before there are high-pitched scratching and straining tones from the viola, which leads to a pure free jazz fight in its last few minutes. It’s my favorite part on the album.

One of the most famous quotations of the show—“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered”—is like a motto for Max Johnson’s music: It is hard to pigeonhole this music, it is programmatic and notated yet free and excessive at the same time. And with Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone, Mat Maneri on viola and Tomas Fujiwara on drums, he simply has a great band.