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Saturday, November 6, 2021

Gregg Belisle-Chi — Koi: Performing the Music of Tim Berne (Relative Pitch, 2021) and 2 others *****

By Gary Chapin

Different tools have different possibilities. They have different values and different reluctances. A quintet will have different options and do different things especially well. As will a trio. As will a solo pianist or singer. The choice of ensemble or instrument is more than incidental, especially in improvised music. They determine the structures through which the musician conspires to inhabit the music. This is not controversial, but it is fascinating. And it sounds wonderful.

An album of tunes by Tim Berne played on acoustic guitar is not a thing that I realized I needed. Gregg Belisle-Chi (produced by Berne and David Torn) does something remarkable and organic on Koi, simultaneously distilling Berne’s compositions to their essential elements and imbuing them with a new kind of life.

Belisle-Chi plays steel string guitar with a classical-ish vibe (meaning, it’s not exactly classical, but feels like it’s in that space). A comparison to Bach lute suites seems like it might be overwrought, but I think it’s apt. These pieces — transcribed and arranged by Gregg — have a deliberative forward motion to them. By choosing an instrument and idiom that eschews extended technique (except for one instance), we’re getting readings of Berne that are precise, nuanced, subtle, and intimate. The pieces tend to be short, with the improvisation and composition woven together, but the album is strung together of tunes that have an arc to them.

The broad emotional palette free improv is set aside for a more reflective space that builds power over time. In other downtown-ish settings, this kind of acoustic guitar performance might be deployed for a short time as a character or setting in a more cinematic piece (to be followed by a BIG ELEGIAC NOISE). Koi commits to this voice and the tug-of-war relationship between rationality and improvisation for the duration. Belisle-Chi’s persistence is a gift to us.

See Gary Chapin's interview with Gregg Belisle-Chi

Bloodcount — 5 (Screwgun, 2021) *****
Bloodcount — Attention Spam (Screwgun, 2021) *****

I shouldn’t be so susceptible to the charms of outstanding sound quality, but I am. I know I should feel shallow because of this, and I do. But, these two recordings are of a well documented band playing well documented tunes, but something about the immediacy of the recordings, be it the mix or levels or … that’s all I’ve got in my pretend-to-know-about-sound-engineering bag. 5 and Attention Spam feel extraordinarily present. The bass and drums are right there. Jim Black’s solos have a clarity of sound to them that I’ve only heard on drum solo records. I don’t often find myself thinking, “OMG, that snare!” Maybe this is me flashing back to the time I was in the room with this crew, with all that sound happening directly to me.

That’s a first impression. Second thought is that the band was having a great night that time in ‘97 when these discs were recorded “Somewhere” by “Someone.” Attention Spam gives us the quartet of Black, Formanek, Speed, and Berne. The two saxes (with sometimes clarinet) play beautifully, communally, as does the whole team of four. On 5, Marc Ducret becomes the fifth guy, on guitar (a regular role for him in this crowd), and proves Neil Postman’s axiom that when you add a critter to an ecosystem, you don’t get the ecosystem plus the critter, you get a new ecosystem.