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Wally Shoup / Paul Flaherty / Thurston Moore / Chris Corsano - Live at Tonic

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Artist: Wally Shoup / Paul Flaherty / Thurston Moore / Chris Corsano

Album: Live at Tonic

Label: Leo

Review date: Jul. 8, 2003

An Engaging Brew

Ghosts, insects, aliens, bicyclists, construction workers, sailors. The figures on the cover of Live At Tonic are vaguely rendered enough that they look like anything, really. Subtle shades of ochre and beige fill their skinny frames, with an exactitude that shows the artist’s complete engagement with the work. A painting like this could only have been done by a child, an idiot, or a genius, and both the painter and the musicians (of which the painter is one) certainly share elements of all three. But don’t forget what I just said a minute ago, because that’s the important part: engagement.

Seattle free music veteran Wally Shoup painted the cover art for this disc, and played alto sax on it as well. On this gig recorded at Tonic, the Lower East Side’s venerable house of all things noisy, Shoup was joined by Paul Flaherty on tenor sax (and a bit of alto as well), Flaherty’s frequent New England-based collaborator Chris Corsano on drums, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, a downtown institution in his own right, on guitar. They introduce themselves in that order, backwards, as they announce their intentions within the first minute and a half of their set. Once the guitar starts cutting and weaving its way through the silence, and you can almost see Moore swaying back and forth, throwing open the cages and letting everybody out – the other instruments do not sneak in as much as jump out from behind trees. No uptown music here, no idle socialites chatting tonal relationships; no downtown clichés either, the conversations conducted without any trace of a raised eyebrow. This is a jailbreak, and what comes running out of this group’s collectively liberated consciousness is a sense of musicality without fetters, without restraint. Which is not to say that Live At Tonic is all savagery and violence, because there’s an astounding amount of genuine lyricism as well. When the floodgates open, a wide range of expression emerges.

Even with the limitless expressive possibilities afforded by free music, most free horn players have failed to disinherit certain less desirable parts of the jazz estate. Namely, the tendency to play loud and fast and high all at once, the unintentional limiting of the palette to certain predictable responses that are too often the norm. Shoup and Flaherty know that free music shouldn’t even have norms, and though they can blare when they want to, they wrangle more emotion from two notes than other players can get with hundreds. For his part, Corsano is one of the most sensitive drummers I have ever heard, sensitivity of course not to be confused with restraint. He knows exactly when to play where, and that includes moments where the real necessity is to conjure up the sound of an approaching militia. The most impressive playing on this record, however, comes from Moore’s corner. Like a Whack-A-Mole game at an amusement park, my original skepticism about Moore’s ability to hang was given a sharp blow on the head with a giant foam bat. He came roaring in with power, agility, a handy Sonny Sharrock Guide To Fucking Shit Up tucked in his back pocket, and most importantly, an impeccable sense of timing. It always seems that he has the right tools for the job, until you realize that he’s the one picking the jobs, using the tools, punching everybody’s time cards, and probably even sweeping up after everybody’s gone home. Well, okay, maybe not that last bit. He is a rock star, after all.

By now you’ve already forgot the introduction, even though I told you not to. Shoup and Flaherty and Moore and Corsano wouldn’t have forgotten, though, because every detail of this package radiates focus, from the cover art to the wild freakouts that never repeat themselves, right down to the deliberately warm and enveloping moment that occurs fifteen minutes and thirty seconds into the second set. It’s all very deliberate, in a way that only the truly engaged can be: focused, centered, grounded, and wild as all hell. Like I said, engagement. It’s a beautiful thing.

By Dave Morris

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