Although Rhys Chatham is best known as a composer for guitars, preferably lots of ‘em, his preferred instrument for the past quarter century is the trumpet. He’s made it a point to explain his affection from both academic and erotic perspectives. (If you don’t want to read the second link, the short explanation is “I starting writing brass pieces in the eighties primarily because I had a problem with impotence at the time and found that playing brass forced my breath down.”). Until recently, his trumpet recordings were thin on the ground, but his 2009 CD The Bern Project (Hinterzimmer) — the result of a weeklong collaboration with some Swiss musicians — seems to have kicked off a trumpet phase. In 2010, Chatham mounted his first U.S. tour playing his trumpet, and now comes Outdoor Spell, his first brass record for an American label.
Like much of Chatham’s work, this CD doesn’t fall easily into any genre. This is, after all, a guy who claims both La Monte Young and The Ramones as influences on his composing, and Don Cherry and Jon Hassell on his trumpet playing. But while his use of technological sound enhancement yields a tone somewhat like Hassell’s, his processed horn is not a vehicle for fantasies of hyperlinked pan-culturalism, and while he embraces Cherry’s use of previously avoided sounds, he certainly isn’t playing jazz. “Outdoor Spell” begins with accumulating layers of voices that sound like a collage of throat-singing recordings. Then Chatham begins inserting short trumpet phrases that stack on top of the voices to create a teeming, hypnotic drone. The next tune similarly relies on a delay pedal to accumulate sonic mass, but Chatham’s huffs and snorts brush away the meditational mood with lusty rudeness. “Corn Maiden’s Rite” takes this mood even further by swinging a mass of whinnies around Beatriz Rojas’s cajon groove; simultaneously wheezy and woozy, it sounds like a blowout powwow for asthmatics. This music may not be for all tastes, but there’s nothing else like it around.
“The Magician” closes the album on a weaker note. Accompanied by drummer Kevin Shea (Mostly Other People Do The Killing) and guitarist Jean-Marc Montera, Chatham tries his hand at free improvisation. No one plays badly, but neither does the music ever cohere into compelling action; it just sounds like improvised music tends to sound. To his credit, Shea does not play like any other drummer Chatham’s worked with, and he steers well clear of the metronomic beats that marred the Nonesuch recording of A Crimson Grail, but his broken, arrhythmic figures seems to diffuse the impact of Chatham’s playing. Perhaps Chatham is better off expounding upon his own ideas, rather than exchanging them with others.