AMN Reviews: Awkward Geisha / Galaxxu – Sea Shanties and Mariner Tales (2018; Bandcamp)

The distinction between free jazz and free improvisation can be subtle. Put simply, both labels describe music that involves much less premeditated structure than one might otherwise expect. But the instrumentation and influences of the former are centered in what one might recognize as jazz, while this is not the case for the latter. Awkward Geisha and Galaxxu are two free improvisation groups that team up for this split album, Sea Shanties and Mariner Tales. Arguably, since each group’s contributions come in at about 35 minutes, their respective efforts could have been standalone releases.

Awkward Geisha, the less conventional of these two unconventional outfits, is a loose collective with a surprisingly large number of recent releases. On this effort, their focus is more or less on sax, guitar, bass, and drums. Their four tracks vary – Day of Death features jagged guitar riffing over rapid sax lines, while Abbey Road Forever is more of a montage of musical and non-musical samples. Night at the Fairground eliminates the sax and brings in tabla-like percussion to accompany long, unstructured guitar solos. Heatwave in Winter (2ème Version) focuses on guitar and bass improv with intense synthesized, yet organic-sounding, beats. Personnel varies from track to track, adding a further level of diversity to music that is already nigh unclassifiable.

Galaxxu is a Chicago-based quartet also using sax, guitar, bass, and drums. Unlike Awkward Geisha, they work together as a band. Most likely a live-in-the-studio endeavor herein, the group powers through four angular tracks that mix subtlety and aggression. Each instrumentalist contributes equally, with bass and drums as likely to set forth leading themes sax and guitar. What we are given is an unregulated dialog involving rude tones, continually shifting tempos, and the occasional wailing. The conversations between sax and guitar are particularly fun to follow, as one will introduce a theme, the other respond, which triggers a further response from the initiator, and so on. Ultimately, many of these interchanges evolve towards free-form blowouts, which are deftly navigated without becoming overbearing.

Both Awkward Geisha and Galaxxu bring an urgency inflected by rock, or even punk. Nonetheless, this is creative music through and through, just a little rougher around the edges than most. Fans of Derek Bailey, Ruins, and The Work will likely appreciate this release.