Friday, June 06, 2014
Suspension of self: Mick Barr and Marc Edwards
Last year, I wrote about the jazz/metal intersection for The Daily Note. One of my case studies was the Mick Barr / Marc Edwards duo. By that time, I'd seen Barr play many times—with Orthelm, Ocrilim, Krallice and various other projects—and caught at least one show by Edwards, in collaboration with Weasel Walter (I believe it was the 2011 Death by Audio performance that ended up on Solar Emission), so I had good sense of each player. At least one of their duo sets up to that point was on YouTube, so I spent plenty of time with that document as well. In short, I did my best to get close to the music.
Last night, I saw the Barr/Edwards duo live for the first time, standing front-and-center at Saint Vitus, and I realized that before that, I hadn't been anywhere near it. I'm doing my best to recall it now, after an intense night of music that also featured sets by Many Arms and Dysrhythmia (respective leaders in the zones of what you might reductively call punk fusion and prog metal), and again, I don't feel like I'm anywhere near it. Last year, I wrote about the nowness of witnessing, respectively, Milford Graves and J. Read. To have your mind around those players, fully, you do, literally, have to be there, as the saying goes. I think it is the same for Mick and Marc.
There is this cliché of finding common ground. With Barr and Edwards, what they do is something closer to finding common purpose. Their backgrounds are distinct, tied to their respective ages and geographies—Mick coming of age in the Connecticut and D.C. hardcore/post-hardcore scenes of the early-to-mid-’90s, and Marc in the jazz avant-garde of early ’70s Boston and New York. Edwards made his name with Apogee, a sadly underdocumented trio with David S. Ware and Gene Ashton (later known as Cooper-Moore), brilliantly recollected by Cooper-Moore here and heard on Ware's outstanding debut, Birth of a Being, recorded in ’77 and released in ’79. (Cooper-Moore shares a priceless account of the group's appearance at the Village Vanguard, opening for none other than Sonny Rollins, at Rollins's invitation. "For you see, we had the endorsement of the master… We mounted the stage as if it were a spacecraft, and blasted off.") Barr came into his own with Crom-Tech, an insular prog-punk duo that famously wowed Ian MacKaye and the rest of the D.C. underground.
Edwards, along with Ware, eventually worked his way to Cecil Taylor's band, a collaboration documented on the mighty Dark to Themselves, from ’76. (As Edwards told me on a postshow chat last night, Birth of a Being was sort of the afterlife of Apogee; the band was most active in the early ’70s, and it reunited post–Dark to Themselves to record what would become Ware's debut.) Barr cofounded Orthrelm, which reached its apex with the 2005 minimalist-metal opus OV. Edwards was born, in ’49, more than 25 years before Barr, but the players' trajectories, their respective pursuits of free jazz and extreme post-hardcore/-metal—musics built on intensity and endurance—were leading them to a very similar place. These underground movements aren't quite unified—the crowd at Saint Vitus last night wasn't the same crowd I'll see next week at the Vision Festival, give or take a few fellow overlappers—but the two scenes have, thankfully, become entirely simpatico.
Barr and Edwards have developed a shared language, or more accurately, they've discovered—after being introduced by Weasel Walter, a key facilitator and catalyst of this new jazz/metal moment, as well as an integral participant in it—that they had each arrived separately at a variation on the same dialect. As Mick told me last year, the purpose and method of their duo is clear and straightforward: "I think we’ve done three shows now or four, and every time it’s basically the same thing; we just play a solid 20 minutes to a half-hour, and afterwards, I always feel like I got my ass kicked."
And so it was last night, yielding an experience (probably closer to 45 minutes, on this particular occasion) that I wished afterward and still wish now that I could bottle. Edwards epitomizing a style of free drumming that I think of as coaxing or conjuration, enacting what is more or less a perma-roll around the kit. (You can hear him engaging with both blast-beat-centric metal and what I hear as a very specific sort of ’65–’66 free-jazz approach—think of the undulating, rubato sweet spot between Elvin Jones on Sun Ship and Rashied Ali on Interstellar Space. But in the end, Marc Edwards isn't playing style; he's playing drums.) Employing a loose grip, allowing for the multi-attack strokes that are his signature, and using a double kick pedal to add extra density. (The latter is a recent addition to the Edwards arsenal; Marc told me that after spending roughly four decades as a single-pedal drummer, he made the transition to double kick after seeing Bay Area the extreme-free-jazz duo Ettrick play.) Edwards knows when to add in a gut-punching crash cymbal / bass-drum bash for punctuation, but mostly he's all about the snowball effect, the gradual accruance or invocation of a primal rumble that's maximalist (in terms of the sheer density of notes) and minimalist (in terms of the overall effect) at the same time. Barr is after something similar. His famous cyborg-level picking and fretting chops yield a firehose of sonic information.
The agreement between the two players seems to be, simply, faith in endurance. It's not just some sort of athletic act, what they do, but nor is a self-important "spiritual" exercise. Very plainly, and without making a fuss of it, when Marc Edwards and Mick Barr play duo, they're showing you that there's no distinction between these two pursuits once you reach a certain level. You work for decades to hone what we call chops; then you find a sympathetic partner and enter this free space, this lingua franca of—do we call it avant-garde? I think there's a language pretty well established at this stage, so maybe it's better to say that you willingly step into a kind of DIY sublime, where the extreme volumes and densities of niche styles such as post-hardcore and free jazz blur together, and steadily and deliberately and mostly without pause, you're conjuring and nurturing a vibration. I think of a rubber-band ball being assembled in fast motion or a wave form gradually increasing in amplitude. Whatever the metaphor, it's about starting somewhere, hitting the ground, as it were, and just maintaining, stoking, pushing, pushing, whipping this musical whitewater into a glorious, room-engulfing froth. It's harsh, yes, but also benevolent, loving.
There were several brief pauses in last night's set, and a few of what I'd call chapters. During one segment, Edwards shifted to more of a fractured fusion groove on the bass, snare and ride—as heard here—ceasing the multi-strokes for a period and opening up space in the music. Barr responded shrewdly, using his volume knob to bring his sound in and out. But on the whole, the set was a sort of sonic static—and I mean "static" descriptively, with no pejorative connotation—a statement of either relentless macro-level sameness or infinite micro-level variety.
It's a gift to step into that space with two players this accomplished. Afterward, as I'm doing now, you might step back and ponder the marvel of the circumstance, the years and miles and communities and struggles—all the facts of life in underground music, the way it stubbornly plants itself and endures, cultivates a small, devoted following and persists with a more or less willfully oblivious or even antagonistic relationship to the wider world of art—that brought Mick Barr and Marc Edwards to share a stage at a metal bar in Greenpoint. But there, in that time, in their presence, you're just communing with what they're conjuring. The contrast with say, a work day spent in front of the computer, is total: a welcome blizzard after a day of dry, blazing heat. You don't ever want it to stop, and that feeling persists when it's over. You carry it with you, a seemingly superhuman, yet ultimately so humble and generous, musical act such as this. It doesn't matter what you call it—jazz, metal, improv, minimalism; what's important is the net effect, for listener and—I expect—performer: a temporary and very deliberate suspension of self.
P.S. Videos of Barr/Edwards in action: 2011, 2013 and (wow, just discovered this!) last night.
P.P.S. Went looking for new/recent Edwards recordings last night after the show and came across this late 2013 release, Sakura Sakura (3 variations). Just bought it; can't wait to check it out. Solar Emission, linked above, is highly recommended.