Brooklyn, once the stepchild of Manhattan, has become a musical mecca, attracting hordes of musicians and listeners to neighborhoods with “music in the cafés at night, and revolution in the air,” to quote Zimmie, who was writing about another time and place and revolution.
Here are two new releases from folks who live on planets situated in different galaxies but who inhabit the same modest borough of New York City: Musette Explosion and the Suite
Unraveling, headed by guitarist Lily Maase, an Albuquerque native.
Musette Explosion, Introducing Musette Explosion (Aviary Records)
I used to think that musettes were the music played on merry-go-rounds in heaven, but that can’t be true. However heavenly these tunes may sound, the Musette Explosion trio makes it clear that they are too earthy for that celestial realm. They could only make angels discontent, longing for the sweet joys of an earthly body.
It’s not surprising that the trio—Will Holshouser (accordion), Matt Munisteri (guitar, banjo), and Marcus Rojas (tuba)—have made me reassess the nature of musettes. It was Holshouser, in a different trio’s debut recording, Singing to a Bee, who first made me understand that the
accordion is a serious instrument, not just an enabler of circus buffoonery or geriatric polkas. Munisteri introduced me to the music of Willard Robison on his fine album Still Runnin’ Round in the Wilderness. As for Rojas, who is revered by lovers of long sound waves, I know of him only what I’ve heard on this album and already count him, if I’m not being too presumptuous, a brother.
Rojas’s presence makes it clear before you hit Play that these guys are not looking to
reproduce the sounds you might have heard in Montmartre clubs in, say, 1920. As Holshouser says in the liner notes—he writes as well as he plays, by the way—“Rather than reenact the old records, we followed the music as it led us somewhere.” These three virtuosi found a wormhole from the simple harmonies and structure of the musette to a modern
sensibility that coexists quite comfortably with the earlier material. To put it another way, as Munisteri did when speaking of Robison’s music, they found the musette “transmutable to
They feature four works by the accordionist Guy Viseur, who not only played musettes in the early part of the 20th century, but bebop in the middle, and selections by accordionist Jo Privat, violinist Stéphane Grappelli/guitarist Django Reinhardt, and guitarist Baro Ferret.
Holshouser himself contributes three tunes, including the most beautiful track on the album, “Grey Eyes Is Glass,” inspired by a Zora Neale Hurston poem and inspiring for Rojas, who
delivers a great swinging tuba solo. Then, Munisteri breaks your heart with his guitar while
Rojas elicits delicate animal laments in the upper and lower registers of his huge brass
instrument. Holshouser’s “Chanson Pop,” which has a touch of Sgt. Pepper’s about it, includes a solo from Holshouser that runs from bucolic sweetness through dark anxiety before rising to a church organ affirmation. Somebody needs to write lyrics to this tune.
Privat’s “La Sorcière” is another high point, with its spooky intro and with Munisteri on a “six-string banjo fitted with a ‘wah-wah’ knee lever; no effects pedals, strictly 1920s technology (ok, a little reverb),” say the liner notes, for some interesting effects. Rojas is so light-footed here, with a soaring quality to his lines. This tune clearly exhibits the hybrid quality of the musette: its rural roots and urban outleafing.
Munisteri delivers some of the finest rhythmic work you will ever hear on the Grappelli/
Reinhardt tune, “Swing 39.” No drummer with brushes could have done it better. Holshouser also shines on that tune, somehow managing theatrical flourishes while remaining
simultaneously genuine. There’s a lightness to his playing here, with sudden dips into heavier territory.
Though this is their first recording, the trio has been playing together for about three years, and you can hear it. They listen so well to each other that some of the smallest details in their
playing bring great satisfaction—such as the suave handoffs from one soloist to another.
These three musicians have served the music by following where it led: to the heart of their imaginations. Their energy, humor, virtuosity, and deep feeling make Introducing Musette
Explosion a welcome, unique, and most satisfying experience.
P.S. The track listing on the CD has an error. Track 6 is “L’Incomprise,” and track 7 is “Automne,” not the other way around.
The Suite Unraveling, The Suite Unraveling (Tzadik)
And Phil Spector thought he had a wall of sound. Lily Maase (guitar, electronics) and her cohorts in the Suite Unraveling—Michael Kammers (sax, Farfisa organ) and Curt Garey (percussion,
keyboard, electronics)—have built a moving wall of sound that could crush small cities. Their
ferocious mixture of rock, jazz, death metal, and trance builds on small, enthusiastically
repeated figures, layers of them, with relentless rhythmic pulses and outrageously dense and dissonant chordings. It’s minimalism turned inside out and with the volume turned up, with
influences that reach from Guns and Roses to Ornette Coleman, from the wizards of electronica to Morbid Angel. There’s even a small section on the tune “Ricochet” that recalls George
Each of the six songs morphs episodically through variations on basic patterns.
Crescendos come on layers of howling sax, dreamy organ, pounding drums, shimmering electronics, and blistering guitar that
occasionally reach such towering levels of noise that they approach silence. My guess is that it must sound something like this at the center of the sun.
Maase wields her guitar like a musical scythe, cutting down fields of complacency at ground level, with enthusiastic support from Kammers and Garey. Kammers lives in the upper registers of his saxophone, launching himself into
horripilating frenzies of sound, as on “(my melody lies) Elsewhere,” where, to use a purely
technical term, he goes pure apeshit on the final sustained crescendo. But he also finds the right soulful touch that floats through the closer, “Made to Be Broken.” His Farfisa organ casts dreamy shadows with its long-held tones over thrashing waves of guitar and drums. Garey, though locked into the repeating rhythmic patterns, finds the right deviations to keep things alive, and his electronics—like the sampled guitar that sears across the middle section of
“Ricochet” (or is this Maase’s electronics?)—deepen the experience.
Maase, who wrote the music and arranged it for this trio, seems to have found her way to the center of the musical language that she’s been developing for the last eight years or so. The fact that she’s produced this album on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, with Zorn as executive producer and Kazunori Sugiyama as associate producer, says a lot about her musical maturity and distinctive voice.
The music is often harsh and difficult, buffeting the ears with sonic storms, but on repeated
listening, as one’s tolerance to the ferocity strengthens, the hard, opaque surface of the music transluces, revealing a rough beauty and a layered emotional depth.
© 2014 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.