“A screaming comes across the sky,” begins Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow — a description which could well apply to the female primal scream that opens Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s 1979 debut album. Given that the side-long title track translates to “Mt. Fear” — a volcanic mountain reputed in Shinto mythology to be the entrance to the underworld — it comes off less as some avant-garde indulgence, and more as The Beast That Shouted “I” at the Heart of the World.
For a long time Geinoh Yamashirogumi existed in my mind as the quintessential cult band. They were mysterious to a fault; even other hard-core underground music fans didn’t know a thing about them apart from being the folks (singular? plural?) who created the soundtrack for the animated film Akira. They had a relatively small number of releases; after 1992 or so they put out no new recordings at all, but continue to have live performances. They specialized in synthesizing musical traditions from every corner of the world, from Japan on outwards, and using modern technology (synthesizers, cutting-edge recording studio systems) to bring it to a global audience. And they were from Japan, another major magnet of fascination for me personally — not just because of the cultural aura that provided, but because that made them all the more remote and difficult to learn anything about in a practical way. Read more
It was only through George Russell’s obituary that I ever learned about him in the first place. He was not as household a name as Duke or Miles or ‘Trane, but he mattered in a way that is only now becoming clearer to me the more I delve into his catalog. Better late than never, I suppose, but maybe there is no “late” when you are dealing with someone who has become effectively immortal through their work.
Russell was not just a composer, performer and bandleader, but one of jazz’s major theoreticians — someone who took what jazz was about and codified it in a scholastic way. Most people immediately wrinkle their noses at the words music theory and I know I did at first, but on getting closer to his work I realized he used that perspective to tunnel into jazz and build outwards from inside it to create new things. His theory was meant to be practice, and the recordings that exist of his work are testaments to the ways that could be done.
Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature, for me, stands as the best example of this incarnate theorizing. It has been recorded at least three different times, each version enough unlike the others that it becomes clear even to someone without a copy of the score how much the work was meant to be interpreted in each performance. Originally released on the tiny Flying Dutchman and Strata-East labels, it became a favorite not only of jazz fans but prog-rock and experimental music lovers thanks to its scope (it’s one long composition broken over two sides of an LP), long modal passages, use of tapes and electronics, and its general atmosphere of striving, surpassing and transcending. It went out of print for nearly a decade or more, became a collector’s item, and has since returned on CD and as an MP3 download. The latter is easily the best way to spend $2 burning a hole in your pocket. Read more