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Squarepusher - Solo Electric Bass 1

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Artist: Squarepusher

Album: Solo Electric Bass 1

Label: Warp

Review date: Aug. 31, 2009

Solo recordings have the capacity to be not only vivid reassessments of instrumental and sonic possibility, but also statements on method. While sometimes these tendencies can ossify, every now and again you get a recording as indispensable as Peter Kowald’s solo bass epics, Steve Lacy’s multiple soprano sax forays, George Lewis’ solo tromboneliness, or Derek Bailey’s guitar monologues.

I have to admit, however, that the very idea of solo electric bass creeps me out a little bit. This isn’t necessarily because of how over-determined a signifier “bass” has become for certain kinds of listeners (though it has a long way to go until it catches up with guitar or trumpet). It has more to do with the, ahem, aesthetics of those likely to do such a recording: whether of the fretless, six-string, or even the touchingly simple four-string variety, a lot of what’s out there seems to sit smugly at the infernal meeting point of Derek Smalls’ “Jazz Odyssey,” Jaco at his worst, and the flatulent self-indulgence of Les Claypool. What’s more, for a lot of folks in this camp – as either listeners or players – what it means to be “jazz-influenced” is to play the kind of chops-as-weaponry drivel that Bela Fleck fans seem to love.

So it was with real trepidation that I agreed to take a listen to Solo Electric Bass 1, a single 40-minute performance from a 2007 Paris show. In general, the music comes across like a solo version of the fusion obsessions that litter Tom Jenkinson’s catalogue. It’s very, very fast stuff, both in terms of the rapidity of finger-wiggling and in terms of the rate at which Squarepusher chops through ideas. He tends to favor lots of finger-popping for wide intervals, light-speed lines that stairstep up and down, and frequent chording in a mannered and self-consciously “jazzy” fashion. For the most part, he’s always playing from melody, too, so whether or not these gestures drive you mad – as they did me – they do at least have a sense of coherence, as the chord progressions steadily unfold. And he doesn’t just clobber you over the head, either; the first several sections of this long piece actually have a kind of intimacy to them, something Jenkinson realizes with his great touch and facility.

While some listeners and reviewers will no doubt swoon at the purportedly forward-thinking direction of Jenkinson, it actually sounds a lot like one of those unfortunate 1970s crossover recordings by Paco Delucia (that’s the musical mood for sure, although it’s occasionally punctuated by a rotund thwack). His phrasing and progressions tend to obsess over the melding of baroque resolutions, flamenco flourishes, and gentlemanly jazz guitar, with the occasional funk popping, warp-speed arpeggios, and so forth. The gentlemanly moments seem the best to my ears, but then again, why not just listen to solo Joe Pass and be done with it? And when Jenkinson channels his inner Stanley Clarke (dude, where’s my lighter?), it actually induces a sense of fatigue.

I’ll give Jenkinson bonus points for not desecrating “Castles Made of Sand” too much, during his brief interpolation of it, but I ultimately found Solo Electric Bass 1 as dull as it must have been difficult to play. I found its final three minutes to be the most enjoyable: They consist of nothing but rapturous audience applause, which seems to capture the self-indulgence of the whole thing.

By Jason Bivins

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