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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Playfield – Volume 1, 2, 3 (Orbit 577, 2021) ****

Playfield - Volume 1 – Sonar

Playfield – Volume 2 – The Middle

Playfield – Volume 3 – After Life

I cannot speak to the exact circumstances surrounding the formation of this unit, but Playfield is another one of those countless projects that would not have happened had the pandemic not disrupted the status quo. Absent the normal forms of collaboration that clubs, auditoria, bars, and studios had offered, musicians took to the streets, per the liner notes, to take part in the welling protest movements and perform in the open air. Given Daniel Carter’s previous involvement with the busking quartet TEST and his decades of constant hustle through the Downtown-now-Brooklyn-based New York scene, it is not surprising that he took the initiative to embrace these new opportunities for collaboration outside of conventional performance spaces.

Playfield is Luisa Muhr (vocals), Ayumi Ishito (sax), Eric Plaks (nord piano), Aron Namenwirth (guitar), Yutaka Takahashi (guitar), Zach Swanson (Bass), Jon Panikkar (drums) and Daniel Carter (reeds). Although their work has been released in a series of three albums, each with a single extended improvisation, all albums seem to come from a single outside recording session in October 2020. I love the concept: a group that joined initially outdoors in the heat of summer protests capturing some of that same flame and passion by recording in similar spaces. Surprisingly, however, the recording is crisp and the urban environs seem largely inconsequential to the sound itself. (At times, I think I hear cars passing or gusts of wind, but they are faint.) The music, however, succeeds in playing the tensions that band seek to explore.

Vol. 1: Sonar begins with a sweltering, Summertime (Gershwin) vibe and drifts along hazily and ominously as Ishito and Carter’s horns entangled, Namenwirth and Takahashi’s guitars vie (one in the left ear, the other in the right), and Plak’s electronics percolate. Swanson and Panikkar rumble in the background and Muhr skats, mumbles and flutters around the others, as if providing the muffled murmur of the demonstrators just a few blocks away, the whisps of cars and trains, the general clatter of the city. Around the halfway point, Panikkar lays down a harder beat, and the piece transforms from a amorphous exploration of converging sound into a free-bop romp that slowly draws back into the spacious romanticism that began the session.

The second release. Vol. 2: The Middle, follows a different trajectory, commencing with a soulful stew of swelling energy, with Muhr’s vocals again adding a necessary human element that links the performance Playfield’s own origins in the public spaces of the city, offering both a decentering account of the tensions of the summer of Covid and adding a hopeful sonic image that those hitherto mundane sounds of people will return. The track then slows into another exploration of angular improv patchwork, only to regain its energy and drive in the final few minutes of climax.

The final installment, Vol. 3: After Life, begins with resounding call and response dialog between Muhr and Carter (I think) around which the other instruments slowly gather. The tapestry is complex, but patient and even sultry. Plaks’ keys and Namenwirth or Takahashi’s guitar effects contribute funk elements to the mix, as the dual saxes trade off brief sweltering licks. Muhr slips to the background and for a few moments it sounds as if she is pacing around the rest of the group encircling them with her incantations. Unlike Sonar and The Middle, After Life avoids ebb-flow-ebb/flow-ebb-flow or the gradual crescendo structures that many of these improvised sessions rely on. Instead, it simmers for the most part, never really breaking into a boil but also never really dying down until the very end. That makes After Life all the more engaging, as it plays with a tension that never quite breaks and showcases collective will toward restraint. It is like a steady breeze on the most sweltering days of summer: it never fully gusts but it undulates just enough to break the stagnant heat.

All three releases are available for download on Bandcamp:

Orbit 577 did press some CD versions, as well, though it seems these sold out quite quickly.