AMN Capsule Comments: Mike Eisenberg’s Recent Playlist (July 19, 2021)

From time to time, AMN writer Mike Eisenberg revisits older albums that he has not listened to in a while and provides comments.

Power Tools – “Strange Meeting” (1987) 

So I hear that bass player Melvin Gibbs is in a new band called Body Meπa. It’s two guitarists, bass and drums. The samples reminded me (a little) of a much earlier band Gibbs was in called Power Tools. 

PT was a trio of Bill Frisell (g), Ronald Shannon Jackson (d), and Gibbs of course on bass. I just listened to it and enjoyed it immensely. I’m a pretty big fan of Shannon Jackson and this release has him in fine form doing his perfectly executed marching beats as well as his crazy free form crashing and clanging. Frisell is a one-man noise machine here…not only doing his precise volume-controlled picking but totally upping the ante with his fuzz boxes and looping…lots of looping. Gibbs holds it all down and drives it all forward with his deeps, mostly staying right in the pocket but occasionally venturing outside too. The album takes a few cuts to get going, at about the 25% mark, it’s fairly wailing!!! They only did this one album, would have liked to have heard more…oh well. This is not as heavy as other power trios out there (despite the name) but nuanced and detailed as hell. Great revisit sez I. 

U Totem – “U Totem” (1990) 

My challenge here is to keep this as short as possible. In 1990, two great U.S. experimental bands from the west coast got together (5uu’s and Motor Totemist Guild) and synergized themselves into U Totem. Alone, these bands were path finders, together…IMHO (on this album) they transcended all of their lofty goals and created something spectacular and I’m quite comfortable using this next descriptor-ageless!

In short, I see them as the American Henry Cow, and just as the Cow’s music will live on through time immemorial, U Totem’s music should too. It’s very possible to write volumes on this album, there was even an academic paper published about one of their pieces and how it fits into the “art rock” milieu…but I’m not going to do that. This self-titled album is a masterpiece of musical styles, from modern classical, electro-acoustic, metal, RIO, Broadway, tape experimentations, prog rock…all of this, and everything in between and in the cracks, it’s all here…and constructed into such a magnificent edifice that words can’t do it justice. Neither can this short piece from the record, but… 

The Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra – “Hearinga Suite” (1989) 

Here is another one of my favorites coming out of the AACM.  I think this is one of Muhal’s more accessible efforts (and by that, I mean, there isn’t any free form blowing and improvising here…the solos are played over written chord changes) in which he leads a 17 piece big band through a 40 minute cycle of songs that covers everything from complex unison playing by different band members (giving it a Zappa feel at times) to more of a classic Ellingtonian “big band” sound.

I really love that Muhal incorporated some synth textures on this record, and they are quite adventurous sounding too. I believe the AEC started discovering synths around this time as well. Lots of notable names on this date such as Cecil Bridgewater, Jack Walrath, Marty Erlich, Fred Hopkins, and Andrew Cyrille among others. Muhal has been a long-time favorite for me, and I’m glad I dusted this one off. 

Michael Eisenberg