Music News

Spring Heel Jack

Ashley Wales and John Coxon, the men of Spring Heel Jack, helped innovate and popularize drum-and-bass, a stripped-down electro movement that may have shot its wad as a stand-alone style but continues to influence production techniques in a variety of genres. Yet the duo aren't interested in either repeating themselves ad infinitum to dwindling effect or bitterly denouncing contemporary artists who are ripping them off. As indicated by this CD -- Spring Heel's third entry in Thirsty Ear's cranium-expanding Blue Series -- they would rather push into new territory than work the same field until their plow breaks.

On first spin, Live, cut during a January concert at the Corn Exchange in Brighton, England, seems like the best damned skronk album in many a year -- a flurry of improvisational jazz with passion and energy capable of leaving speaker grills in tatters. However, a closer listen reveals that there's even more going on as a result of the juxtaposition of players from backgrounds that extend well beyond the Village Vanguard. Outside jazz is represented by avant-bassist William Parker and multifaceted drummer Han Bennink, whose rhythms are simultaneously sturdy and free, plus Fender Rhodes expert Matthew Shipp, who is among the most underrated talents on the current scene, and Evan Parker, an English saxophonist of uncommon gifts. But the mix is supplemented by Wales and Coxon on electronics and heaven knows what else, as well as the otherworldly guitar of J Spaceman of Spiritualized, a group that stands as our finest practitioner of modern psychedelia. No wonder the recording is so consistently heady.

There are but two offerings here, conveniently labeled "Part I" and "Part II," and both run over 35 minutes. As such, the CD isn't so much about specific destinations as simply taking the trip. The soundscapes shift and mutate, moving from full-on instrumental jousts to lyrical passages to exhilarating surprises, like the chants that burst from a nest of synthesized squeaks and squawks two-thirds of the way through the opening track. Jazz buffs will pick up references here and there, including the occasional Joe Zawinul-like keyboard flourish, but a doctorate in music history isn't required to enjoy the madness. Far from it: The immediacy of Live helps the disc bust through standard genre boundaries. This is not your typical drum-and-bass platter -- which is precisely why it's good.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts