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Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Basher - Doubles (Sinking City Records, 2022)

By Matt Gagnon

In Basher’s short Rockumentary: Up Up We Go; Bash, Bash, Bash , we get to view the behind-the-scenes musings and banter of simpatico musicians taking in the moment of being invited to play their music at the halftime show for the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans. Byron Asher, whose first name and surname provides Basher with their band name, tells us that “we are going to play some free jazz for them at halftime, it’s what they want, it’s what they asked for.” What this seemingly inauspicious commentary masks, in a way, is Asher’s attention to constructing composed tunes that draw on danceable avant-pop-orientations that are not always featured or practiced in creative music or free improvisation. (One might think of the work of Golden Valley Is Now or further back to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time as an analog to what Asher is up to.) At the outset, there seems to be something incongruent about playing a strange amalgam of free jazz laced with pop sensibility in the depths of a multi-million dollar industry athletic arena for an audience that has come to watch the “titans of the tape.”

But the more I think about it, and the more I listen to Basher’s synthesis of styles, the more I understand that this is an opportunity to disrupt the divisions between what gets heard and in what spaces. Why not play this heady mix of free jazz and avant pop at a halftime show? Why not gather at the center of the court and make music that teases the listener’s expectations and offers them some new sounds to move to and to think with? It reminds me of how the comedian, Amy Schumer, would have her brother, Jason Stein, open up her shows with his trio, Locksmith Isidore. It’s the rupture of expectation, of what should be played and heard where, and the merging of two seemingly opposed acts into one that creates the possibility for people to experience diverse forms of information under one roof. And, as I want to argue, Basher’s music is prepared to challenge how we hear creative music and what we might do with it: have an embodied experience with sound that extends the aural registers of listening. Often, in my listening, I’m looking for fresh propulsive energy to shift the way I hear music, to alter the way I move in the world, and to do so among others interested in the kinetic power of creative music. Luckily, for this listener, Basher has been billed as a New Orleans “free jazz party band.” And Asher, for his part, describes his Basher project as a “Freak out dance band, free avant-pop, post-jazz groove punk. Basher is about walking the line between creative improvisation and dance crazed party music by way of two saxophones, analog synthesizers and two drumsets.”

Basher’s new album, Doubles, is a sonically engaging and texturally dense record that continues to grow on me with each listen, revealing something new in the wonderfully hazy atmospherics of the synthesizers, the territorial mapping of the tenor and alto sax in their braiding and bifurcations, and the stabilizing pulse and spare energy of the double drums. By territorial mapping, I mean that Asher’s compositions offer a space for the listener to ground themselves, feel themselves around the sound and tap their foot, while also moving outward towards an expressive soundscape that’s interested in an exultant ambiguity. Along these lines, I wouldn’t really hesitate to call Doubles a free jazz dance record, which takes joy in moments of what Asher has called “improvisational mind-reading.” The emotive interplay between groove and mood is what makes Doubles such a breath of fresh air in the creative music milieu.

Byron Asher, the New-Orleans based composer, saxophonist and clarinetist, and leader of Basher has built what I think is a wonderfully evolved sound and identity with his new iteration of Basher. Doubles seems less like a second record and more like a debut with a new band. Basher’s first album, 100% Humidity , recorded in 2017 and produced by Jeff Alberts, was a trio date with Asher on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Reagan Mitchell on alto saxophone, and Brad Webb on drums and cymbals. Recorded in Webb’s basement, the sound quality is not as fine-grained or focused as the new band featured on the Doubles record, where the drums are more prominent in the mix, but it does hint at what Asher’s Basher project can do as a vehicle for exploring and experimenting with the blending of styles and idioms, as well as contributing a new take on the double group concept that is part of the creative music tradition.

One can easily hearken back to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz record, where the left and right channels featured parallel instrumentation playing simultaneously. More recently, we have Ken Vandermark’s one-off Barrage Double Trio - Utility Hitter (Quinnah Records, 1996), Stephen Haynes’ and Taylor Ho Bynum’s The Double Trio - Live At The Festival Of New Trumpet Music (Engine Studios, 2008), and Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple Double (Firehouse 12, 2017) and March (Firehouse 12, 2019) which all play on the double group concept with varying approaches. But what Asher’s creative compositions contribute is a bit of a wrinkle to the lineup of musicians. We have two saxes, two drums, and analog synthesizers, though the whole ensemble is not featured on each recording. Doubles makes use of different combinations of the doubles concept in a way that creates blocks of thick sound dynamics and various speeds that pulsate through the songs and improvisations. The synthesizers add a remarkably inorganic and otherworldly chordal and ambient texture that ups the ante for Basher’s new band.

The new Basher lineup consists of Asher on tenor, Aurora Nealand on alto, Daniel Meinecke on analog synthesizers, and Brad Webb and Zach Rhea on drums. Of all Asher’s ensemble players, I’m most familiar with the multi instrumentalist, Nealand, whose Kobra Quartet (Astral Spirits/Monofonus Press, 2019) recording and work with Tim Berne are worth exploring. And her jazz ensemble, Aurora Nealand and The Royal Roses , engages with New Orleans jazz idioms, and especially, her interpretations of Sidney Bechet’s compositions are joyful and revitalizing. And Meinecke’s psychedelic, acid jazz, and funk infused work with Glenn Echo on Partly Cloudy (MotorCity Wine, 2021), offers an early demonstration of what his Moog and Prophet rigs can bring to Asher’s compositions in terms of song structures and creative improvisation.

Produced by Asher and Alberts in New Orleans, Doubles is organized around tunes and improvisations, though, of course, Asher’s compositions build in space for collective improvisation. For the most part, the track order alternates between improvisations with Asher, Nealand, and Meinecke, with the exception of “Zephyr,” which is an ensemble improvisation that includes Webb and Rhea. At the outset, I hadn’t noticed this alternation of improvisations and composed tunes, but on repeated listen, there’s something compelling and refreshing about the way the tunes get interrupted with more short form mood-oriented improvisations. While the improvisations on Doubles typically run much shorter than the compositions (though not always), they enable Basher to expand their sonic vocabulary to something that verges on what I would call improvisational impressionism. Collectively, these dense sound collages propagate new ideas and textures, and individually, they offer Asher, on tenor, a frame to try out new lexicons and phrasings. As individual demonstrations of collective music making, they don’t so much resolve themselves, as kind of float, saunter, or trot around a feelingtone. As John Corbett writes in A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation, “Improvised music challenges us to get over it. Overcome our collective anxiety about the ambiguous and the unresolved” (114). It’s notable that the titles of the improvisations are derived from Greek and Roman mythology, and while we can’t be sure of Asher’s intent, we know that myths offered ancient civilizations a way to understand their origins and deities. If we try to connect the stories of the gods and goddesses that Asher calls on to the music, perhaps we can say that he sees the improvisations on Doubles as a staging for new creation possibilities.

Side 1 of Doubles opens with the brief and airy improvisatory workout,“ Diana,” conjuring some atmospheric interplay between Asher’s tenor and Nealand’s alto layered over Meinecke’s patient splashes and plucks of warm synth. There’s some reverb on the saxophones in the recording and this deepens the impact of the sonic atmosphere. As the improvisation gets going, the interaction between Asher, Nealand, and Meinecke becomes more insistent, the layering of sounds serving a common cause that’s both grounded and unearthly. The improvisation ends with Meinecke’s lingering synth chromatics, and before another step can be taken, the composition, “Primetime A Go-Go,” opens with a fuzzed synth bass groove. Webb and Rhea, using their stripped down drum kits, provide a rhythmic pulse before Meinecke saturates the proceedings with his glittering synth. Asher’s and Nealand’s funk lines coil around each other in what I can only describe as a joyous groove-based party-like atmosphere. Later in the song, there’s a more improvisatory dynamic between the saxes as they alter velocity, fast talking through dense rhythmic proceedings. It’s here that Asher really starts to show his rich tenor sound in exploratory territory, notating the moment before the saxes come back to their compositional groove.

The short “Artemis,” which is Diana's Greek counterpart, opens with a caterwauling saxophone and an eerie synth presence. In a way, this is an aqueous-sounding improvisation, with fluttering saxophone notes and watery phrasings that recall high-pitched whale moans in conversation. “Claptrap Clapback,'' the lead single of Doubles, works out a laid back hazy funk. Meinecke brings back his thick fuzzed synth groundwork and spaceship wizardry, and the whole ensemble rides out a motivic journey. Webb and Rhea add cymbals and pot covers to the strike surface of their snare drums and organically achieve what sounds like electronic drum beats. Asher and Nealand, again playing in unison, create a powerful polyvocal effect, until Asher’s bright tenor takes the lead while Nealand’s alto punctuates from behind. The composition closes with Asher and Nealand returning to their braided lines and closing quiver. Side A closes with “Ponchatoula,” a slow funk by turns painterly, tender, and even woozy. It conjures what I can only imagine to be a paean to place, like figuratively placing a stethoscope on one’s memory, and capturing the sounds that made a place part of the makeup of your world. Midway through the song, Asher stretches out on his tenor, elaborating a soulful and expressive run until joined by Nealand to complete their particular sonic rendering of place.

The very brief “Bacchus'' opens Side 2 with Asher laying down a steady pneumatic white noise with his pedals. Meinecke offers intermittent electronics, which is undergirded by Nealand’s searching and vibrato alto lines. This improvisation is followed by the cosmic, “Step Pyramid,” which hints at more of an art rock-orientation with the ensemble contributing a steady state groove that opens with Meinecke’s galactic refrain and gradually introduces Webb and Rhea in a collective rhythmic pact, while Asher and Nealand talk around each other. Midway through the song, we get something that closes in on a more of a traditional chorus that introduces Meinecke’s use of a wailing organ, as Asher and Nealand blow the roof off. This song comes the closest to exploring the architectonics of arena rock, and it’s a surprising example of how improvisation and jazz idioms can be disrupted with art rock and pop sensibilities.

“Zephyr” is the only ensemble improvisation on Doubles and it’s easily one of my favorite instances of collective sound-making on the album. Opening with Asher’s and Nealand’s soft wind-like sounds on their respective horns, the improvisation gradually moves into a startlingly loud dynamic with Meinecke selecting his moments to saturate the moment with synth ambience. The addition of Webb and Rhea with their use of snare, bass drum, and cymbals offers an arrhythmic acoustic layering to Asher’s and Nealand’s propulsive explorations.

Asher’s “Carnival 2019” communicates something of New Orleans’ street atmosphere during Mardi Gras with its own storied street parades and gregarious drumming. Asher leads with a rush of notes until the ensemble enters in a frenzy of joyous foot stomping persuasion. In keeping with the marching drums tradition in New Orleans, we get a brief drum-only workout between Webb and Rhea that’s packed with energy. The song returns to a raucous street funk, but in an updated version given Meinecke’s presence on synth, which shimmers through the song. In the remaining 15-seconds, Asher and Nealand, alone, with their reverb drenched horns, bring the song to close by repeating the theme.

“Borealis” is the longest improvisation on the record, clocking in at just over 4-minutes, and it is the most intense and dense sequence of music-making on the record. It opens with Asher’s fragmentary honks and after his opening statement, Meinecke begins to drop synthetic ripples into the soundsphere, while Nealand’s countering alto seems treated with an effects pedal. This final improvisation is a raucous free jazz sound-collage and one hopes they return to this level of mind-reading on future recordings. While Doubles plays with the double group concept, it does so in a way that often features sets of double sounds at different moments. The closing composition, “Refinery Skies,” is a case in point. It features Meinecke’s Moog and Prophet rigs establishing a plaintive mood for the first minute and a half, until Asher and Nealand enter the fray and wind around each other with delicate balladry. The double drum kits are used with spare effect, here, offering more atmosphere than pulse. Light touches on the snares and cymbals help to create what is the record’s most crepuscular sounding composition. It’s really a mood-piece that, given the title, might recall Louisiana’s crude oil refineries at nightfall, and what this refinery process might mean for the future of a habitable planet.

At the heart of Basher’s project is a blurring of the boundaries and categories that define genres and styles of making music. And this blurring can also disrupt the kinds of spaces in which this kind of music might be heard. Some of the best qualities of Basher’s record is that the music doesn’t stay in one place or settle on a singular sound, although this band can certainly be said to have a recognizable sound. As a compositionist, whose other projects include the trio, Nutria, and his 11-piece ensemble Skrontch Music , Asher brings all kinds of speeds and dynamics to his writing. And his Basher project allows him to focus on developing his vocabulary on tenor, while straddling the interacting borders between individual technique and collective partnership. Asher’s ability to write tunes and to take things off the grid, to get rid of the plot, while also recognizing the more somatic components of making music, make him a creative musician to look out for.

Doubles is available as an LP, cassette, and a download. You can listen to it and buy it here: