Improvised Music from Japan

Liner Notes of the CD
The Improvisation Meeting in Chicago

Written by Anne McKnight

The no bones name of improvisation Meeting in Chicago just about says it all.

Recorded in a series of live dates in Chicago in April, 1998, the album features two visitors from another time zone, Tokyo residents saxophonist Masahiko Okura and electric guitarist Taku Suglmoto, as they join up with some of the denizens of Chicago's notoriously active Wicker Park improvisation circuits.

The 12 tracks on Improv Meeting are made up of shifting combos of seventeen players. They benefit from the crossovers that happen when everybody in Chicago seems to be in more bands than you can shake a stick at. For one, this includes jack-of-all-hats player and producer Jim O'Rourke on guitar. His sound here is less overtly musical than on his recent Bad Timing (Drag City) but still retains an open-ended, lyrical edge. Other players include fellow Gastr Del Sol member David Grubbs, Koenji regulars Brent Gutzeit and Michael Hartman on electric koto and drums, and the brothers Adam Vida on drums and Benjamin Vida of Town and Country on electric guitar.

The 12 tracks on Improv Meeting go by the plain names of 1 through 12. Just as anonymous as something that came in over the transom, and they catch you just as unawares. While these pieces don't resemble anything as pat as a concept album (!?!) the cominngs and goings of various players do add up. That space doesn't belong to Tokyo and doesn't belong to Chicago even. If the terrain of Drag City and Thrill Jockey is bracketed between a folk-rock purposely torn from its roots and the experimental grafted from house, techno and a more proper avant-garde, the sessions on Improv Meeting are more akin to somewhere between something lyrical and the pure tactility of sound.

Take the ensemble piece of 5, which sounds like a suitble backdrop for forties film-noir mashers, the kind where you guide around the city with a ruined map. The plaintive sound of Masahiko Okura's saxophone opens the trak, introducing Fred Lonberg-Holm's cello. The abstract tension created by Taku Sugimoto's guitar works in interval with Michael Colligan's clarinet, hitting an occasional blues twang.

The tactility of Kevin Drumm's prepared guitar, an electric guitar mounted on a table top like an all-in-one piano-and-guitar autoharp, sets the clock for 1, 2, 7 and 10. A more homebrew and more gutted version of John Cage's prepared piano, the tabletop guitar is played with tools like a violin bow, a steel chain and a small hand-held fan, using the feedback of volume and equalizer. Drumm's table guitar has more or less reached the point acoustically where it is not even identifiable, strictly speaking, as a guitar, and has instead become an instrument which can be mined for raw sound. As in his solo work on Kevin Drumm (Perdition Plastics) and Sonance Quarry (Tautology Records) the plucking, tweaking and hitting of the instrument on 1, 2, 7 and 10 feature sounds sometimes mechanical like the Euro-electronic avant-garde, and sometimes reminiscent of the six feet of snow of fellow Chicago band Souled American.

Masahiko Okura's saxophone on 4, 6, 7 and 8 recalls a much more interrogative rendition of Abe Kaoru's late free live recordings. But in addition to the jagged skips on 5, for instance, there are patches where he too treats his clarinet like a percussion instrument, interrupting a long series of stacked-up runs by stopping short and trilling the mouthpiece.

Anne McKnight