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Guillermo E. Brown - Soul at the Hands of the Machine

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Artist: Guillermo E. Brown

Album: Soul at the Hands of the Machine

Label: Thirsty Ear

Review date: Apr. 29, 2002

Soul at the Hands of the Machine is Thirsty Ear's latest addition to the Blue Series, a group of records whose stated purpose is to push the boundaries of jazz. A couple of entries have shoved harder than the rest-- Matt Shipp's Nu Bop and Spring Heel Jack's Masses have mated hip hop and prerecorded electronic experiments, respectively, with harmonically complex improvisation. Others, like Mat Maneri's Blue Decco and William Parker's Painter's Spring, are simply really good jazz records. All of them, however, have started with unobtrusively recorded jazz played on acoustic instruments.

So, maybe Guillermo E. Brown's Soul, which almost completely dispenses with the conventional jazz lineup and heads straight for outer space, is the Blue Series' most radical release yet, at least compared to what we might expect from Thirsty Ear. This record will come as a surprise to those who know Brown from his drumming with Shipp and David S. Ware, neither of whom have tried anything nearly this eclectic-- Soul runs the gamut from out-jazz wails to electro thumps to ambient synth washes to soul-diva testimonies to Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Of course, the mere presence of a mishmash of styles doesn't make a record good. Plenty of genre-hopping releases-- most of the catalog of the Six Degrees label and a lot of late-'70s fusion, for example-- are terrible because eclecticism is the end rather than a means. There's nothing particularly novel about throwing a sample of Tuvan throat singers over a drum and bass beat, particularly if the thrower doesn't understand Tuvan throat singing or drum and bass.

Brown succeeds where others fail, though, for two reasons. The first is that he and the musicians he employs seem to understand the styles they're incorporating-- the beats are complex and don't sound dated, the ambient textures are well-recorded, and the improvisation doesn't suffer any from all the extra layers of sound.

The second reason Brown succeeds is because of his understatement. Layers of whooshing and humming electronic sounds fill the mix, which deny the beats and acoustic instruments the chance to step out in front and make a bold statement. ("Hey, you're never gonna believe this, but I'm gonna play a DRUM SOLO over these crazy electronic noises!")

This record has some kinks-- Brown's group's tendency to pile on layer after layer of acoustic and electronic percussion sometimes becomes a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth -- but this is a startling record nonetheless, especially since Brown is still in his mid-20s. For open-minded fans of free jazz and ambient, Soul at the Hands of the Machine is cause for celebration.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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Find out more about Thirsty Ear

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