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Air Names is the first solo recording from UW Assistant Professor of Horn Daniel Grabois, who also performs with the Wisconsin Brass Quintet. Grabois, a French hornist, is joined in that group by trombonist Mark Hetzler whose work with Sinister Resonance has been highly praised (read the LSM review here). The two are also label mates on the Summit Records imprint based in Arizona. Both musicians mine similar territory, taking the most unlikely of instruments and processing them through effect units that give them a myriad of voices, textures and tonalities. While Sinister Resonance packs an edgy wallop, Grabois’ compositions float in the ether. A common, distinctive reference point is King Crimson and its guitarist Robert Fripp. And that’s not unusual since Grabois is also hornist in the Meridian Arts Ensemble, a new-music brass and percussion ensemble based in New York which performs around the world and has released ten critically acclaimed CDs, boasting a wide repertoire that spans Bach to Zappa and, yes, King Crimson.
The album’s sixteen selections showcase the stunning timbres that one would definitely not associate with the French horn or the two other invented instruments Grabois employs: the noreba, which is normally a double reed instrument known as an Indian shanai, , fitted with a horn mouthpiece, while the other is one he calls the bouchero, consisting of a stopping mute outfitted with a mouthpiece. Joining Grabois are bassist Nick Moran (also a member of Sinister Resonance) and drummer/percussionist John Ferrari. Mike Zirkel, who engineered and recorded the album at Audio for the Arts, is just as crucial to the final result.
The rhythm section is fairly grounded throughout, playing largely in familiar patterns. Grabois’ backdrop tapestries are spacey and sometimes menacingly taut, every bit as essential as the soloing in contributing to the overall mood. Melodic themes emerge that are classically founded. Moran’s bass is amazing, its gravitational pull on both the others holds everything together. The solos are truly mind-bending, often carrying on conversationally. In fact, I listened through the album and jotted down my impressions and then referred to the liner note description Garbois provides for each track. In most cases they were remarkably similar. Some of the grooves have a Latin or Latin-pop feel, others are more straightforwardly pop. The most compelling tracks are those that explore the experimental and the solo pieces, which all nod toward Fripp.
Only the solo piece “Lost and Found” is the natural sound of the French horn, although it is soaked in reverb. Another solo piece is “Oaxaca Catherdral.” The genesis of this track is in a stone room where Grabois captured his warmup on a cell phone. The delays are very cool on this one.
“Moons of Mercury” stands out, a concise pop song with a melodic refrain. The four-chord descending pattern is reminiscent of Chicago’s “24 or 6 to 4” but on a futuristic acid trip while the horn freaks out Adrian Belew-style, resembling elephant trumpets and whale songs. The liner note reminds us that “Mercury actually has no moons.” Brilliant. “Civil War” is aptly titled. It’s meditative with a marching snare drum accompanying heavily-treated phrases while a distant, ominous presence drones. It sounds like it was recorded from the other side of a verdant valley, the sound bouncing off the rolling, wooded hills. “March” is a short weird duet with Ferrari, almost like a Keith Emerson – Carl Palmer workout or a Fripp/Crimson studio experiment. “Not Much but Air Names” lends the album its title. The initial mellow, sustained tone is pure electric guitar. This is one of the most adventurous tracks as it cycles through several different grooves, at one point the horn sounding bowed and resembling the anguished cries of a wounded beast. This one was inspired by a poem that resulted from a garbled computer interpretation of a dictation: Don’t drown there / I will save him politely, and the hanging can begin / (though it’s bad on film) / Think: you haven’t much but air names. A similar poem derived in the same fashion inspires the closing track “Love Meant Living Alone,” where the meter of the prose is reflected in the rhythm of the playing. Strongly resembling the freakish quality of King Crimson’s “The Sheltering Sky,” this track effectively synthesizes everything that came before it.
Air Names is a strong entry in what feels like a burgeoning experimental and/or acid jazz movement in Madison that is most intriguing. With the opening of a new jazz club, there seems to be strong indications of a newly blooming bohemian style that could easily catch on. That would certainly be a welcome escape from an impossibly convoluted reality, an effect that Grabois’ impressive solo debut also achieves.