By Nick Metzger & Lee Rice Epstein
Featuring Damon Smith
Over the past couple of months Lee and I have been chatting with bassist, composer, and Balance Point Acoustics label head Damon Smith about his huge year of releases in an effort to learn more about what’s often missing from our reviews - the artist’s perspective. Even with excellent liners there is much about a record release that is unknown or even unknowable to those not intimately involved in the blood and guts of planning and execution. Some of these releases have histories that go back decades while some are brand new, which made for excellent conversations as old stories and insights unfurled alongside those of newer, fresher ones. Many of the collaborators on these albums (and in corresponding stories) are masters like Roscoe Mitchell, Alvin Fielder, Keith Rowe, Jaap Blonk, Peter Kowald, Joëlle Léandre, Bertram Turetzky, Gino Robair, and Ra Kalam Bob Moses, either in duets with Smith or playing alongside heavies like Sandy Ewen, Weasel Walter, Rebecca Novak, Jerome Bryerton, David Dove, and Jason Jackson. If I learned anything for certain from these extended conversations, it’s that Damon is a generous guy. Generous with his time, his resources, and with his praise for his collaborators. Portions of the conversation are transcribed below along with blurbs for each album from Lee or I to give a brief listener’s perspective.
Blonk/van der Putten/Meurs, Blonk/Smith - Hugo Ball: Six Sound Poems, 1916 (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)
“Six Sound Poems'' is a 1916 work from chief Dadaist and Cabaret Voltaire founder Hugo Ball. There are two fantastic renditions in this single package; the first album was recorded in 1989 with Blonk, Bart van der Putten (saxophone), and Pieter Meurs (double bass) and the second was recorded in 2013 with Smith (double bass). Excellent art & packaging with a terrific essay from Melissa Venator on Hugo Ball along with the original text for the poems. The instrumentalists are superlative on both sets, mainly buttressing and/or sparring with Jaap’s howls, screeches, and raspberries. If you’re looking for an entry point to Blonk’s music you could hardly do better than these sets. - NM
DS: I first saw Jaap play with my bass teacher, Lisle Ellis, Miya Masaoka, and Malcolm Goldstein, a fantastic group. And then about a year later, the first time I went overseas to Sicily was the Dream in California Festival in Palermo. I played with Garth Powell, a drummer from the Bay Area, and Gianni Gebbia and Jaap played with us then. That was the first time we played together and I bought some CDs from him around that time. And one of them was a solo of his, and the other one was the other disc in this set, which was a trio. Then we didn't work together for a long time, but then we found money for him to come play in Texas. We had a couple of working groups, one with Chris Cogburn and Sandy Ewen. We did some other stuff together, and then we had an off-day and we went and recorded. I said ‘I always wanted to do the Hugo Ball with you’ so we went and recorded and then put that CD out. I think we did 250 copies and then we repressed the cassette at 100 copies three times. So 550 copies, which is sort of a hit in this music, right? (laughing) And then I had this idea to put out the double CD, and was able to do that, which is really great. I'm happy to have it out. It’s got expanded notes by Melissa Vanader, who's my girlfriend, and an art historian, which are pretty fantastic. If you know about Hugo Ball at all you know that he did the sound poems, but people don't know what else was going on with him. This edition also publishes the poems themselves and some photos. I'm really excited to have that out.
Feichtmair/Smith/Robair - The Shilling of Frogs (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)
A spacious and lovely set from 2003, Feichtmair, Robair, and Smith generate a great amount of drama from stretches of silence offset by an occasionally spiky tenderness. - LRE
DS: I met Tanja in Austria in 2002. I was playing the festival in her hometown of Ulrichsburg, Austria, with Fuchs & Bryerton, and we exchanged CDs and kept in touch and started working together. When she came to the Bay Area we recorded this trio with Gino. It was during a time when it was harder to get CDs out, you had to order 500 or 1000, there weren't a lot of options. A couple of people had figured out a way to get people to care about their CDRs, but it's really hard to do that. So these recordings just ended up getting lost and when I moved to St. Louis, I guess, two years ago. I was looking for something and this fell out of a box. And I put it on, and it was a pristine studio session mixed perfectly. Everything was there. And so all I had to do was get Weasel to master it. Scott Looney recorded it. Gino was one of the first people I played with, so it's a bit weird that he and I don't have that many things out together, so it was really nice to get this out with him. He had made these beautiful drawings, for Lelio Giannetto, the great Sicilian bassist who had just passed,and again, this is how albums can come together, you can have something sitting around but if you don't know what you want the cover to look like that's something that can really hold something up. I know it’s hard to imagine, but if you don't have a vision for the cover, how are you going to make a CD? You can't even create a Bandcamp release if you don't have a vision for the cover, even if it's just going to be a solid square or something. But Gino made these beautiful drawings In the Red for the cover, and he had posted them on Facebook. and I thought, oh, man, that would be a great cover.
I got titles from Ingeborg Bachmann. Because Tanja's Austrian. I wanted to find an Austrian poet to get titles from an Austrian source. At first I tried one of the Vienna Actionists, Gerhard Rühm, and that didn't work out. They just didn’t line up. Sometimes this title thing works really well and sometimes it doesn't. I live next to Forest Park, which is bigger than Central Park, and I was sitting in this little wetland area and looking through this book of Ingaburg Bachmann's and there were frogs in this pond, so it was a nice way to get the title and I think the title came out great and the cover and everything. Tanya is a very special player. She's got these rounded edges to the way she plays. She talked about being influenced by Francis Bacon who sort of distorted faces and things like that, the way he brutalized these human figures in his art. I think there's a really interesting way that she deals with pitch. If somebody can deal with pitch in an interesting way, I think that's an incredible feat in this time period because we're not abandoning it. That's the music part of improvised music. I think that the music part ends up being how we're linking the stuff back, how we're dealing with the traditional music. I think dealing in general, what we're often doing is dealing with the timbre, which I think is a really important thing to do and there's a lot to explore there. Reggie Workman does it, especially with a lot of portimento, which is when you slide into a note, the vocal quality of the way he plays, it's very special. What she does with notes and makes them swell and gives them shape is incredible. Gino is an incredibly innovative percussionist. He's one of the very first American percussionists to start working with the ideas that came from European free improvisation. And his work is a very early American version of that stuff. David Moss, who just does voice now, but David Moss, Alex Cline and I think Michael Zerang and I'm forgetting a couple others, but those are the people who were really in-there very early on.
Ulher/Smith/Cogburn - The Eternity-Cult (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)
DS: Brigit Ulher and Gino have a duo, they've worked together for a long time. And there's a connection with this, too, though, because the first time that I met Tanja I was on tour with Fuchs and Bryerton and the next place we went to after Ulichsburg was Wiesbaden in Germany, which is interesting because that's where the fluxus composer and artist Ben Patterson was living. I wasn't connected to his work at the time, but he was there. It's interesting to think about that. And I borrowed the bass of a fantastic bass player named Ulrich Phillipp. He has a great album called Put, and he gave me a copy of that, among other ones. I got in contact with Birgit and this is one of the things you could do in the Bay Area. The Bay Area is a weird place because Tech is so hostile to art and music. So there wasn't a lot of funding because Tech is the big money in that area. It was really hard to get money for music. There was a little bit around here and there. One of the people on the scene that would throw money into the music is actually a foundational partner of Pixar and Lucasfilm. So it's not like every person that worked in Tech, but just generally that industry. But this guy would sometimes put up money for the music and help out in a bunch of ways. So, it's not to say that across the board, but what you could say to a German is, ‘hey, I can get you concerts in the Bay Area. It's really nice here.’ And they'd show up. And then the thing about the Bay Area is there was improvised music every night. And you could have a concert in Oakland, a concert in Berkeley, and a concert in San Francisco, and different people would come to all three. So you can have a project and sort of tour the Bay Area with it and play to different audiences. I used to always say that the Bay Area had a giant, lazy audience. The benefit of that would be you could play a concert one day and 15 or 20 people would come and then you'd play a concert later in that week and a different 15 or 20 people would come. So improvised music was sustained at a local level. If you did something big, if you're bringing some German into town or whatever, then you get a really big crowd in each of these places. But at that time, at least, I don't know how it is now. I haven't been back since I did the Roscoe Mitchell album.
NM: The Eternity Call one is really different than all of the other releases. It just stands out as something completely different from a listening standpoint.
DS: Yeah, it was completely different to play, too, and in a way to kind of relate that back to the discussion Alvin had with me about ‘of all Cecil Taylor’s drummers Andrew Cyrille is the most adventurous with swing.’ One of the things about The Eternity Cult that makes it different from an EAI record is that there's a movement in it. I think that album has a sort of a momentum that I would call a very abstracted swing, and I think it's my most radical version of it on record to this day.
NM: Yeah. What makes it unique is like you said, that forward propulsion that's missing from a lot of that kind of music. I thought that was really interesting.
LRE: It's interesting, though, because poetry obviously plays a strong part in your work, but a thing that we're touching on here is narrative, a kind of dramatic narrative, as abstract as it might be.
LRE: It's not telling a story but pulling a listener through the album. I think that The Eternity Cult is one example, but I also think it’s there in some aspects on both albums with Alvin Fielder, who does it extraordinarily well, one of the best at it. There is this, I don't want to say theatrical because that sounds like you're putting on theater, but it has that quality.
DS: Yeah, some kind of abstract version of it. I think, again, that kind of goes into the music part of improvised music because I think the two words are important, the improvised and the music part, the music and music's connection to things like lyrics - what lyrical even means when you say somebody plays ‘lyrically’. But there was something special that happened when we came together. This is a group that I wanted to do for a long time, actually. When I first moved to Texas, I'd played with Chris Cogburn in the 90s and he was doing a van tour of the country. We just did some private playing. I always liked him personally. I feel like both Birgit and Chris are people who are friends that I stay in touch with. And I really like both of them a lot personally. And I think that group came together and created something that night. And also Denton, it was recorded in Denton, Texas, which is a really magical place because you play these concerts and I think this one was a house concert and there's all these young people in their early 20s and late 20s, and you'll go to one of the concerts and they're running around and smoking and drinking and yelling and being young people and all that.
DS: And then the concert starts and then they all sit with just rapt attention. And there's some people who are constant through the scene who live there. In my experience since I first started playing in Texas and Denton, there's just a new set of these young people that have the same behavior where they're partying and they're doing the young people thing. And when the music starts, they're just incredibly quiet and there's a lot of them. And with this music you're not playing to, like, a room full of 20 year olds very often. And if you are, they're not silently sitting there with total focus. A lot of them are going to be North Texas students, but a lot of them aren't. And so there's a weird listening culture in the youth culture in Denton that keeps getting passed down. And it really changes things. It's an intense experience. The concert is full. That it's people that are used to playing to a bunch of, like, older dudes - to be honest in this music, that's what it is. And those people are very important too and I love every one of them. But Denton has a special atmosphere, and it changes the music. Then we were about to play the New Idea Festival, which is always super fun and super serious and really amazing in Austin. Chris puts that on. At the New Idea Festival, we actually did a quintet with Jim Denly and Tomas Lane, which was outstanding.
Jump to: Part 1 | Part 1b
Nick and Lee, this is an incredible effort ... I think we can take the next week or so off from presenting new reviews in order to digest your engaging weave of critique and discussion. Congrats!
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