Blue Shift


In name and spirit, Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series was conceived as a millennial answer to the Blue Note of the mid ’60s. Ballsy move, given that pre-Norah Blue Note had the same idea. With Matthew Shipp renouncing early retirement to serve as house curator, an initial run of distinguished outside-in meditations such as his own New Orbit, Mat Maneri’s Blue Deco, and William Parker’s Painter’s Spring showed promise. Then Thirsty Ear chief Peter Gordon roped in non-jazz acts, beginning with his label’s own jungle-dub-classical duo Spring Heel Jack. The ensuing body of jazz-electronica composites, featuring the likes of DJ Spooky, FLAM, and GoodandEvil crossed with Shipp’s stable of improvisers, became the series’ signature sound. In Blue Note terms, Thirsty Ear had shifted emphasis from Sam Rivers and Andrew Hill to Lee Morgan and Jackie McLean.

Although hardly alone in electro-jazz, Thirsty Ear has worked to develop the hybrid into a brand. Verve and Blue Note raid their own vaults too. But their remixes rarely re-enact the jazz process of musicians playing together in real time. On the flip side, Pro Tools–savvy jazz musicians adopt the palette but not the aesthetic of electronic music. In this regard, the Blue Series has gradually outgrown its gangly precociousness. Early efforts couldn’t help but feel superimposed, as Spring Heel Jack and others convened what Gordon calls “sample sessions” featuring Shipp, Parker, and their peers. The label has overcome a lot since then: logistical riddles, Shipp’s skepticism, the basic at-oddsness of the jazz and electronica disciplines. And that last part is a work in progress, judging by Shipp’s Equilibrium, El-P’s High Water, and Guillermo Brown’s Soul at the Hands of the Machine—three bravely imperfect albums fusing abstruse atmospherics with hooky beats.

The label’s most compelling synthesis so far is Craig Taborn’s Junk Magic, which makes sense given the keyboardist’s résumé. Cutting his teeth in Minneapolis in the ’80s, Taborn split the difference between Detroit techno and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He started “messing with electronics” at the same time he began playing piano, and has done duty not only with Roscoe Mitchell and James Carter, but also with Bill Laswell and Carl Craig. Taborn made his Blue Series debut in 2001 with an alluringly off-kilter acoustic trio record called Light Made Lighter, and in the same year took a dazzling digital turn on Tim Berne’s The Shell Game. Reflecting on his latest, he claims to have been driven not by genre, but form: “I was engaging in different processes, rather than hybridizing styles.”

Junk Magic opens like a microtonal music box, with Maneri’s viola and Aaron Stewart’s tenor saxophone slowly twirling a figure over keyboard filigree. Percussion arrives in programmed layers—first a sputtering hint of rhythm, then a high-contrast loop that finally bursts into polyrhythmic clangor. Unusually for jazz, it employs texture as a plot device, abiding electronica’s art of crescendo by accretion. By the time “Junk Magic” morphs into “Mystero,” the arrival of David King’s choppy breakbeats is surprising but reasonable, like an unexpected guest from down the block. A similar intervention animates “Bodies at Rest and in Motion,” as piano, viola, and tenor engage in a group free-improv spacious enough to accommodate the arrhythmic patter of overlaid synth-drums. Pulse is paramount in Taborn’s sound world, where even the formless masses have forward pull.

The acoustic core of Junk Magic was recorded live in studio, which accounts for its organic disposition. But Taborn splices with a jazz sensibility as well, as seen in his resourceful use of King, whose tracks were cut separately. At the Bowery Ballroom in March, the keyboardist absorbed collage into his improvising process with unselfconscious adroitness, presiding over his blinking consoles with the fluidity of tai chi and the focus of an air traffic controller. The result was prickly but malleable. By contrast, Thirsty Ear’s 12-inch remix—composed of two Junk Magic tracks reconstituted by “Afro-Electronica” sound sculptor Val-Inc.—maroons the music in a middle distance. Taborn avoids this kind of dislocation because technology doesn’t trigger his antibodies, and his Blue Series labelmates can learn from his example. They could start with a new slogan: machine at the hands of soul.