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Morgan Guberman & Gail Brand - Ballgames & Crazy

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Artist: Morgan Guberman & Gail Brand

Album: Ballgames & Crazy

Label: Emanem

Review date: Aug. 16, 2004

Ballgames & Crazy features the British trombonist and Lunge member Gail Brand along with Oakland, California-based vocalist Morgan Guberman. Guberman is probably better known as a bassist than a vocalist: he’s released several solo bass albums and has played bass with many of the best musicians in the Bay Area. So I was surprised to learn that he’s a skillful singer, too – he has a voice that never seems to tire and excellent control over an impressive number of weird sounds. What’s less surprising about Ballgames & Crazy is that Brand is wonderful throughout. Her agile squeaking and squawking is remarkably sympathetic, both in terms of its sound and of the way it follows Guberman’s voice around every bizarre turn. And Myles Boisen's recording is clear and intimate.

So why don’t I like this? Most of the reasons have to do with Guberman’s vocalizing. For all the skill involved in Guberman’s singing, it features actual speech – and very goofy speech, at that – too often to take too seriously. He sings with an exaggerated accent that’s weirdly reminiscent of Primus’ Les Claypool (perhaps it's a Bay Area thing), often sounding like a crotchety old man. For all the reedy, vibrato-inflected, wordless wails and high-pitched clucks here, Guberman often sings in words rather than sounds (and his vocals often sound like speech even when they’re not in any recognizable language), which in this context can distract the listener from his interplay with Brand.

Lots of pieces of music feature words without those words being distracting, obviously (and Brand and Guberman are at their best when they’re referencing types of song-based music, such as the blues on the gorgeous beginning of the title track). But free improv is, at least for me, different from other types of music in this regard. Words usually separate vocalists from other instruments, because they are specific and evocative in ways other instruments cannot be. On Ballgames & Crazy, Brand and Guberman seem to interact under the pretense of equality - they're about equally audible, and each seems to have about the same share of the lead. But when Guberman sings things like "Beers, actual BEERS!" the scales tip. Perhaps this is the reason that some of my favorite improvising vocalists - Linda Sharrock and Maja Ratkje come to mind - often sing in sounds, rather than words, as if they’re trying to sound like something other than singers.

Or perhaps not. After all, plenty of free improv sessions highlight one performer, leaving others to background roles. And it seems wrong to dismiss all free improv that prominently features words or phonemes that sound like words. Maybe in a different context (With another vocalist? In a larger ensemble?) Guberman’s words would not be so distracting, so it’s possible that I haven’t really gotten to the bottom of this. In any case, they are distracting here, so Ballgames & Crazy is more like a very impressive demonstration that would be fun to see live than anything you’d be likely to enjoy more than a few times.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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