When Miles Davis released On the Corner late in 1972, the affronts and outrages of Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way lay behind him. Thanks to Miles, fusion was established fact, only a few years away from its commercial peak in the late ‘70s. The jazz purists were already implacably pissed and divided; the more adventurous rock kids were already on board. All the great early fusion bands – Miles alums to a man – had released their important first records: Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever.
So when On the Corner’s title track hit with its wah-wahed evocations of Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes, it was more status quo than radical – just the new Miles gone funky, after the fashion of the day. But nothing could have prepared the listening audience for what happened next: nothing.
Nothing happens next. The groove dwells, unchanging, undeveloped in any conventional way; the root note doesn’t move; a trumpet squawks, a sax shivers, but no one steps to the fore to solo or to state a melody; 16:23 of the 20-minute track sounds somewhat different from 5:56, but the listener barely notices the change occurring. It happens in glacial time, music modeled after the event tempo of solid matter. It’s a slowly shifting funkscape, easy to mistake for still-life stasis.
Experimental/electronic trumpeter (and Hudson Valley transplant) Ben Neill raised his self-designed hybrid horn, the mutantrumpet, generations after Miles’ historic forays into fusion, but there is no denying that the Miles influence underlies so much of what we now call “illbient” drum ‘n’ bass and avant-garde electronic jazz offshoots. Melody does not drive this bus. Composers like Neill eschew the problem/solution structures of conventional harmony in favor of the dwelling colors and sonorities of non-functional harmony: harmony not driven by diatonic resolutions.
In the absence of conventional compositional forms, the listener’s attention is drawn to drifting textures and to discrete, palpable sonic events. Once you’ve given over to this alternative model of musical development, you begin to see the music as much as to hear it, to handle the sounds in the palm of your mind. These principles have existed in Minimalist and academic experimental music for years, but Neill, like Miles before him, takes it to the dancefloor.
Now, no one but Miles had the balls to play so little so unapologetically. On 2009’s excellent Night Science, Ben Neill’s ambient groovescapes are quite eventful and action-packed journeys by comparison. Skewed beats skitter, reverse, melt down. Analogue bass blobs blossom and quiver. Pad sounds morph from gauzy-ethereal to queasy-ethereal. The chameleonic mutantrumpet – a kind of composite, grafted multi-brass instrument with full digital outfitting – well, it is hard to say how many of these sounds the mutantrumpet accounts for.
Maybe that’s why we should all go see Ben Neill live at Backstage Studio Productions (BSP) in Kingston on Friday, January 11: to see exactly what the mutantrumpet does when it is not doing trumpet. Neill will be performing before the New Zion Trio, a piano trio of downtown jazz heavies playing a curious and striking kind of dub-ified jazz very much deserving of its own future feature.
New Zion Trio & Ben Neill, Friday, January 11, 9 p.m., $12/$9 in advance, 18 and over, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; (845) 481-5158, www.bsplounge.com.