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John Shiurba - 5 x 5

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Artist: John Shiurba

Album: 5 x 5

Label: Unlimited Sedition/Rastascan

Review date: May. 24, 2007

When Anthony Braxton was at Mills College during the 1980s, he began establishing relationships with Bay Area improvisers which have – albeit only occasionally over the years – yielded some delightful recordings. Some years after his 1987 duets with percussionist Gino Robair, Braxton documented a heapin’ helpin’ of his Ghost Trance Musics with several musicians from this scene (on the excellent Six GTM Compositions 2001). One of this scene’s most interesting, and least heralded, improvisers is guitarist John Shiurba, whose latest recording not only features Braxton (along with fellow Bay Area players bassist Morgan Guberman and Robair, and visiting trumpeter Greg Kelley) but shows the great man’s influence as well.

The disc consists of a single suite, with an introductory segment and five related improvisations. The primary elements are pulse tracks (very angular, with wide intervals and interesting timbral contrasts) and big billowing drone-based sections, indebted respectively to Braxton’s quartet musics of the 1980s-90s and his more recent investigations into micro-sound (something the San Franciscans have been digging into for some time). The intro expands with the sound of cymbals and booming bass, with clanks and metallic grumbles in the background as Braxton plots a circuitous course via alto. And the music explodes from there into the four-part suite, filled with character and invention.

Generally, the music gives the impression one gets from Cage’s writings on sound, one of those compositions in your head when the insects chirping, cars zooming, and overheard conversation all blend together improbably to make for a coherent sonic provocation. Generally, one or two of these players stick to “real notes” as the others merge into a shifting textural assemblage. Braxton continually reminds the listener of his incredible ability to layer tones and notes, like Warne Marsh in the middle of SME. Kelley is into an ever deeper phase of trumpet abstraction (though he can still wail in Cold Bleak Heat) and it’s often hard to remember that he even plays a horn here, so distinct is the pure sound of metal and spit. Often this music simmers until reduction into one big textural stew – and chief here are Shiurba (whose range and imagination on guitar I always enjoy), Guberman, and Robair (who sounds as if he was in a Paul Lovens mood here). Occasionally a spooky moan/drone crops up, but the feel is often more ornery than that.

Throughout the subsequent 45 minutes, the group takes in cosmic blasts of Sousa, zaps and sproings like a video game come to life, rumbling plates of sound, klangfarben style musings, and shaggy, 70s-style Euro free improv. Shiurba deftly weaves the compositional materials throughout, subtly modifying the staggered, clanking pulse track in each successive phase of the music. But Shiurba’s stuff is very different from Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music and closer to his contemporary ritual-based music, allowing lots of room for aleatoric playing and so forth. And there are, thankfully, plenty of brilliant solos and duos throughout: Shiurba’s mangled and barbed tone slices across the sound field; Braxton moves from intense circular breathing to harsh jabs; Kelley has a couple of jaw-dropping features, the sound of wounded animals trapped in machines; and Guberman and Robair send forth waves and waves of sawing, hacking, groaning bass and percussion.

It’s a compelling disc from start to finish and one of the better improv discs of the year so far. To those who don’t yet know these West Coasters, this is a fine place to start. To those who are already fans, you won’t be disappointed.

By Jason Bivins

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