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Tom Djll - Bellerophone / Smudge

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Artist: Tom Djll

Album: Bellerophone / Smudge

Label: Soul On Rice

Review date: Aug. 20, 2006

When my wife, a classical pianist, walked into the room while I was listening to some of trumpet innovator Bill Dixon’s solo work, her first (somewhat bemused) comment was: “What instrument is that?” It would be easy to level the same ideologically loaded question at Djll, himself now a fixture on the improv scene for several decades and a practitioner of what is clumsily labeled “extended” technique. He’s far from a Dixon copy, and these two discs from his newly reactivated Soul on Rice label demonstrate a broad palette, a deeply seeded humor and an equally palpable dedication to exploration.

The 1993 SOR debut, Mutootator, was an absolutely stunning barrage of short pieces in live and sampled duet with top-drawer West Coast improvisers. The tracks were then expertly blended, organized out of chronological order, to form a disjunctly dizzying whole. Bellerophone bears at least some resemblance to its older sibling, in that the pieces are mostly brief, save the seven-minute “Epiphany,” itself a study in aphorism and fragmentation. Unlike Mutootator, the trumpet work here is untreated, each piece consisting of studies in spatiality, pointilistic interjection and overtone. Djll is prone to short bursts of sound, many of them in the softer dynamic range, almost serial in their moment-to-moment technical juxtaposition. Even longer phrases seem quilted, each component starkly presented. “Haveitbothwaysophony," for example, is a study of connectivity in muted and non-muted tones, stereophonically placed to heighten the effect. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the disc is the moving rendition of “Brother, can you Spare a Dime” that serves as closer, in which Djll proves himself capable of a beautifully old-timey vibrato. It drips with nostalgia, but I hear no parody in it.

If Bellerophone is a catalog of what the trumpet can achieve in short-form acoustic space, Smudge is its polar opposite. More a series of environments than contained works, Djll opens things up; sometimes with knife-like precision, more often in gorgeously panoramic slow-fade. The whimsically funny titles I usually associate with Djll are gone, in favor of more abstract descriptors, matching the alien beauty of the playing. “Patina” exemplifies the procedures perfectly, ultimately presenting, in juxtaposed simultaneity, a variety of timbral arrays: multi-tone processing; muted musings in post-Miles mode; low growls with voice mixed in; the clicks, pops and wheezes associated with eai (electro-acoustic improv).

These are all delicately under Djll's control in Smudge’s closing minutes. Meditation is the order of the day. The distinctions between analog and digital, not to mention live and processed, are effectively blurred throughout.

Maybe the sibling comparison above isn’t quite fair. These two discs are, at the least, companion pieces - two sides of the same proverbial coin. It might even be worth positing Mutootator as the big bang from which these two newer offerings spring, echoing and reverberating shadows emerging only 13 years later. However perceived, the craft and talent that shaped them cannot be doubted, and I can’t recommend these records strongly enough.

By Marc Medwin

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