FantasticMerlins
 
Innova 670
 
LookAround: Establishing Shot
 
The moviesand jazz—two shiny pieces of modernity that once shocked the masses. Twoart-forms masquerading as entertainment. Both, once upon a time, offered up theidea (perhaps for the first time in this country’s history) that pleasure wasindeed a worthwhile quest. One is like the other. Jean-Luc Godard once said,"The cinema is not the station, the cinema is the train.”  They’reboth, to further paraphrase le Réalisateur, “interested in the train, and notthe station, for [they are] no longer waiting.” From their dubiousfin-de-siŹcle birth-pangs onward, jazz and cinema have refused to simply playit pretty for the pretty people, instead soaking up resistant energy from war,social upheaval, sex and power, bankrupt values, and the seductive velocity ofthe 20th century—all with intoxicating daring and a hustler’s cool.
 
Let’s getlost. They’re playing our song. Was the face. I want to flip. In the mistynight. Flip for real. She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket. Nonames, no addresses. Just companions for the evening. . . Establishing shot.Action:
 
From thebrooding to hopeful, funny, poignant and shocking to outlandish, fantastical,and heartbreakingly tragic, music and film ravish our sensibilities with subversivequietude, vice-torqued textures, subtle melodic insurrection. We like musicthat is cinematic, we relish a film with jazz-like pacing.  Complexnarrative wrapped around the curves of simple beauty. This is the neighborhoodof the Fantastic Merlins.
 
Musicallythey are the spiritual kin of bass sorcerer Franćois Rabbath, Albert Ayler’svibrational, gospel-tinged sonorities, Frisell’s spacious, meteorologicalimpulses, Sonny Rollins’ hopscotch antics, an occasional taut Feldmanesquemise-en-scŹne , Morricone’s redolent lozenges of mood and memory, and 1980sshoot-from-the-hip, NYC-downtown avant-gardisms that ricochet between angularswing and curveball poetics. While not outwardly a JAZZ group (in theverse-chorus-bridge-solo-solo-solo sense), the Fantastic Merlins’ approach torhythm and space is firmly rooted in a freewheeling jazz sensibility—and then again,  there’s that patient, narrative quality that is, yes,deeply cinematic.
 
TheFantastic Merlins are Nathan Hanson, tenor saxophone; Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan,cello; Brian Roessler, bass; Federico Ughi, drums. What’s been called theirgift for the psychedelic is really more of an alchemical interplay. Like thebass-piano-clarinet dynamics of Jimmy Giuffre’s Freefall, the group executes asensual game of freeze-tag between figure and ground. At moments angular andaggressive, but rarely ever austere, the music’s textural elements breatheexceptional warmth into elliptical spaces. Bass, cello, saxophone intertwinefor a honey-rich choral effect, splinter with steely “abkratzen,” and epitomizechamber music (both in the sense of containment and a subversive sense ofsurface attraction). It’s the soundtrack of a strange and beautiful loveaffair.
 
DavidHockney, in an exchange with fellow painter Larry Rivers, once said he wouldrather his work be thought of as beautiful, because, “interesting was on itsway there, but beautiful could knock you out.”
 
LookAroundby Ughi is a gorgeously evocative, open lament—it gives a brooding,filmlike sense of foreshadowing that betrays the composer’s affinity for PaulBley. While there’s an ether-inhaled atmospheria to things, Roessler’s use ofbow (haunting flautando and calorie-rich bottom of the Franćois Rabbath, MarkDresser variety) suggests a more Central Europa-Mediterranean-Sephardicgrounding, keeping things from entering into the Scando-austerity of an ECMrecord. The undercurrent, steeped in sadness and a yearning for hope, pulseswith thrums of war, loss, and the slow-motion shock of disbelief.
 
Hanson’sI was behind the couch all the time jumpstarts the session with ominous to-be Ornetteto-bop and propeller-arm-swinging forward momentum. Full of encroachingconsequences, creeping suspense and ultimate horror (but in the most baroque,yeah-like-that-could-happen, Roger Corman sense), the piece curtails itselfwith delicious entropic distractions, hide-and-seek rhythmic centers, and analmost shave-and-a-haircut denouement. With A Very Small Animal we’re met by stillness, then slowly evolving thicketsof movement. There’s a riot going on. But this rebellion eschews the noisy andoffensive, embracing instead a quieter unrest—think of the sonicequivalent of Barnett Newman's audaciously bold line.
 
Outside ofcinematic moodscapes, tunes like It Would Seem are where the groupexcels—creating a terrifically angular, intercutting of push-me/pull-you,Monkish figures, abrupt right-angles (as jarring as an exit off the New Jerseyturnpike), and, what might best be described as, a fugal falling-up-and-down-thestairs. It’s delightfully bumptious. Unlike John Zorn’s unscheduled lane-changeapproach to “aural movies,” the Fantastic Merlins collectively traffic less incut-n-paste, “file card,”synaptic chaos. Here, swirly shimmering pools ofeddying string-n-sax swoops and circular echoes of melody collide withattenuated, treble-shrill skronking and boom-chakka-lakka-thump. The result islike a Steve McQueen car-chase in the middle of a good foreignfilm—unexpected  yet somehow familiar in its excitement and adrenalthrill. Suspenseful, but electric with paint-peeling splendor.
 
LettingGo isjust that. Like some of Bill Frisell’s chamber work, this has a gorgeousmoebius-strip current of steel, metal, wood, and curved space. Partpassacaglia, part gone reflection (one of those tiny imagist poems ofexperience that connect us to threads of the past, the knowable), the piece hasa Satie-like simplicity, with an implied ache. I’m reminded of AACM pianistCarei Thomas’s inspired see-sawing of the fulcrum between beauty’s dark andlighter recesses and remember that poet George Oppen once said, “If one stepsinto nothing, the fact is tremendous.”
 
Roessler’sDance Partner revels in what can best be described as a nagging, playful,I’ll-tell-the-waiter-he’s-wanted-on-the-telephone-change-partners-again mashupbetween “Lulu’s Back in Town” and Piero Umiliani’s ultra-infectious “Mah-NaMah-Na.” And I’m all the better as a result.  Runoff Water is a piece of poetry. Swelling with condensation,it’s insistent, like Wislawa Szymborska’s Water, patiently “Gnawing at stone”that coaxes one toward “pronouncing all the vowels at once.”  Hints of anancient-to-the-future update of 16th century Emo prince,  John Dowland,semper dolens ( “Flow my teares” is another form of run-off, isn’t it?). Musicof this gravity (to misinterpret Andrei Tarkovsky’s definition of cinema) iswhere we go to "receive time." 
 
Lenny is a “hit single.” Theslashing rhythm of the strings goads, teases a kinetic, dancerly vamp and theresult is all-out, angular, funkified no-wave exhuberance. Fierce, hip, andobstinate, with an albeit melancholic hue,  I can’t help but feel thatHanson was channeling the rapid-fire, Benzedrine-fueled free association of atleast one Lenny, the late lamented Mr. Bruce. Ughi’s Line, a vivid piece ofwrenching, pastoral beauty and slowly evolving gesture, is one of the mostrichly satisfying entries on the session. The elegiac sea-to-shining-seamomentum and narrative quality is worthy of classic Morricone.
 
Beautifulurgency, Ornette circular-madness (think Science Fiction-era), pulsing, tense,and full of menacing joy—Bright and Wide gives way to full-boresax and skittering drum volleys. . .near-psychedelia, expansive, with adistinct avoidance of gravity. From a lurching dodge and parry betweencello-bass-saxophone, an insistent trance-fueled, test-kitchen wedding oftimbres, we’re met with one last glorious interrupted skraaanck. Fin.
 
JeanCocteau once said, “The public does not like dangerous profundities; it preferssurfaces.” The values of jazz and improvised music are typically an affront tothe polite surface of life. Call it a left-handed form of human endeavor, butThe Fantastic Merlins’ subversive aesthetics are a threat to The Man. Theyembrace a daring velocity, a dissonant wail, a noir-ish sense of sensuality,intimacy, and risk, they embody freedom and possess, dare I say, a democraticappeal . . .all of which act as a powder-keg, dismantling silence and decency,as poet Ed Dorn once said,  "like whips of sex in the Sousa-fillednight."  It hardly gets more cinematic than that.
—TimDuRoche, Portland, OR
 
(TimDuRoche is a Portland, OR-based jazz drummer/conceptual artist and writeractive in improvised music from ragtime to no time. He writes regularly aboutjazz, dance, and other arts and culture-related issues for a number ofpublications.)