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Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Wilson Shook and Ted Byrnes - Joy (Other Ghosts, 2023)

By Gregg Miller

Sax/percussion duo, restless fire music. Wilson Shook plays baritone and soprano saxes, Ted Byrnes on everything percussive and the kitchen sink. Incessant drumming, burst after burst of baritone sax lines, in the tradition of ecstatic free jazz. Recorded in Los Angeles (Shook recently relocated to Oakland). Inventive hook after inventive hook, patches of sonic groove, a joyful noisy mess. Bang the cans. Shook’s edgy baritone, an onslaught of notes. stretched timbres, ripping out short declarative phrases, lots of overtone, growl and punctuation. Never in one place very long. A naturalistic texture. They don’t begin to slow down until the 18:20 mark of track two (“Joy 2"). Track 3 is slightly more spacious, the soprano more cutting, the silences between phrases slightly longer. Here Byrnes plays the rims more than the snareless snare, supporting the soprano’s register. The same restless energy and power as on the first two tracks. A bit over halfway, they switch to bari and the ringing snare drum.

We have a maximalist kind of minimalism: Just two instruments, yet an overload of sonic textures.

Track 4 (“Joy 4") opens with brushes on snare and a hint of soprano sax calling like a bird from somewhere high above canopy. By the 3 minute mark (on this 22 minute track), they are well into their dialogue, the frantic brushes continue, an insistent, boomy tom (small kick?) rounds out the tonal scheme. In the eighth minute, the energy changes when the brushes are replaced by thunder rods (maybe) on a drum with variable pitch. In the fifteenth minute, the snares are engaged. The intensity is the story.

You can hear a sampling of Shook’s other work here.

Much more about the intense and inventive drumming of Ted Byrnes here.


Wilson Shook wrote some very thoughtful responses to a few questions over e-mail:

1. Tell our readers about the record.

We recorded "Joy" one afternoon in Ted's garage, and I would say listening to it feels like spending a noisy, claustrophobic, sweaty hour in Ted's garage. We were both pretty isolated musically and socially for the first couple Covid years, so getting together to play a few sessions at the point where we finally felt safer doing it felt cathartic, but there's also a sort of furtive, obsessive quality about the music. Maybe that's the bunker mentality. The energy we brought was very specific to that time and place, and everything that had been going on around us. So it felt emotionally and physically potent.

I was also processing the recent death of Paul Hoskin, who was an influence aesthetically, as well as a friend. The baritone I'm playing on the record is Paul's old King Zephyr, which I had just brought back from a trip to Seattle. So there's a little bit of Paul in the music, I hope.

[You can hear 6 minutes of Paul Hoskin's bari sax on a train here]

Playing with Ted, especially in duo, demanded a level of intensity and persistence that I had to consciously work toward. Some of the strategies I used to get into that zone have structural implications for the music, such as the repetition and mutation of motifs. I'm not sure I ever played like that before, and I don't really play like that now.

2. Do you have a philosophy of music-making or sound that manifests here, or that you are trying to manifest?

For much of my history as an improviser, I've focused on developing a sensitivity to the changing moment, an agility to respond or not respond to each shift with a shift of my own. The emphasis is on listening first of all, but beyond that on radical mutability and ability to abandon safe, known identities and habits. This music is a bit different, in that it demands that one continue to inhabit a given moment, intensity, and texture—perhaps quite a bit longer than is comfortable or even physically tenable. There is still de-familiarization going on, but it's more the kind that happens when you stare in the mirror for too long. Other artists have taken this sort of idea to more extreme ends, but this was a stretch for me.

3. What role does the body play here -- do you think of this as embodied sound -- and if so, in what sense?

I think of improvising as striving for a kind of embodiment that reaches beyond individual bodies, that is a way of existing in time & space & in relation to others that breaks the rules that govern mundane reality. So there's a paradox of getting out of the body by really inhabiting it.

Music should be consoling, too. Music is where I go to be honest about my own body, which means challenging myself and exploring the transformative potential of the medium, but also confronting my own (fuzzy, inconsistent) limits with compassion. Doing so in the presence of others can feel healing.

5. I have been listening to Jack Wright’s recent What is What (Relative Pitch, 2023). Are you influenced by or otherwise aware of Wright's approach to music, (outsider) musicianship, and the saxophone?

Jack has been an influence for a long time, absolutely. His approach to the instrument was eye opening for me, and his whole engagement with the field of improvised music beyond just what happens on stage has been meaningful in terms of theorizing, advocating, and realizing this thing that is inherently fleeting and amorphous. By that I mean improvisation as a discourse, an orientation, a community, an infrastructure network. He also has a great sense of humor and play, and a real commitment to being present and transparent in the music. I like Jack.