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Jack Wright & Bob Marsh - Birds in the Hand

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Artist: Jack Wright & Bob Marsh

Album: Birds in the Hand

Label: Public Eyesore

Review date: Jul. 15, 2003

Weird, Wrong, Wonderful Improv

Saxophonist Jack Wright is right around sixty years old, but he's still learning as fast as a man half his age. In a recent piece about Wright for < I>Paris Transatlantic, Dan Warburton noted that after a long period playing free jazz, Wright began working with the young saxophonist Bhob Rainey in 1998 and moving toward a more experimental –and often more texture- and timbre-based – style of improvising. Over the next few years, Wright met and played with a number of young improvisers from outside the free jazz tradition, such as Greg Kelley, Scott Rosenberg, John Shiurba, and Matt Ingalls.

Here, Wright is joined by cellist/vocalist Bob Marsh, with whom he’s played since 1986 while both men were living in Detroit. Like Wright, Marsh has spent the last several years playing with musicians whose improvisations are only tangentially related to free jazz . Unsurprisingly, then, Birds In The Hand is based on texture and timbre – extended techniques are an important part of Wright and Marsh's vocabularies. Wright often plays weird squeaks and pops, while Marsh scrapes and bounces his bow against the strings of his cello.

Many musicians whose improvisations are often based on extended techniques, like Rainey or Axel Dörner, use styles of phrasing and interaction that are dramatically different from those of a typical free jazz musician. What sets Birds In the Hand apart is that while the vocabularies of Wright and Marsh's improvisations are similar to those of other extended-technique improvisers, their syntaxes are far more conventional. Wright and Marsh react to one another in a conversational way: there's plenty of call-and-response going on, and the two musicians' playing is busy, but relaxed. Also, there are plenty of relatively melodic lines to go along with all the extended techniques.

While Birds In The Hand is less radical than, for example, Dörner's music, though, it's still a pretty odd record – it sometimes sounds as if Wright and Marsh are trying to play straightforward free jazz even though their brains aren't quite wired for it. (That's a compliment.) As with much outsider music, Birds In The Hand gives the listener the simultaneously unsettling and wonderful feeling that underneath the many perfectly normal things going on, there's something seriously wrong. Marsh's processed vocals are the main reason why: they're clipped and indecipherable, unpretentious and matter-of-factly weird. The vocals are annoying at first, but eventually they make the album feel far stranger than it has any right to be, which leaves me wondering what the musicians were thinking even as I’m enjoying the music.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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