ILM's 2005 collaborative mix project hoonja-doonja!

February 22, 2005

Eddie Harris, "Smoke Signals"

I don't understand how jazz purists work. Which is fair 'nough, since I hardly understand how jazz works in terms outside my semi-rudimentary pop-crit visceral language -- me being the type to judge Roach and Bonham or Monk and Worrell much the same way, with little regard for whatever mumbojumbic technicianistic beardstrokespeak used by those fusion-averse diehards that wrote Miles Davis out of their wills after 1970. The dabbler set I roll with is allegedly the same type that bought up Eddie Harris' albums in droves in the '60s -- his first hit (and the first million-selling jazz single) was a cover of the theme to "Exodus" in '61; the album it originated from, Exodus to Jazz, became a quick gold-seller, and he found better-than-modest chart success with subsequent crossover-friendly LPs like 1967's The Electrifying Eddie Harris and Swiss Movement, his 1969 Montreux-recorded instant-chemistry collab with Les McCann (featuring "Compared to What" of semi-recent Coke ad reappropriation infamy). A lot of jazz purists didn't take much of a shine to him, considering he was a bit of a mad scientist-slash-hot rod customizer when it came to his instruments -- at various points he played saxophones with trombone mouthpieces, clarinet joints and bassoon reeds. The tinkering peaked with his usage of the Varitone, an electric doohickey with amplification and tonal effects that distorted the familiar sax tone into subtly yet strangely-nuanced distortions. Ain't how Charlie Parker did it.

And thank God for that. "Smoke Signals" originates from Silver Cycles, recorded in September '68 and released a few months afterwards, and it holds an interesting distinction: it allegedly contains the first recorded musical utilization of the Echoplex -- a device that allows continous tape-delay effects that, per the name, facilitate the ability to overdub gigantic walls of echo on an instrument. Harris went a bit overboard with it, and it shows: at first the sax sounds simply as though it's being played in the center of an empty concrete parking garage, and then it expands and oscillates its way out towards self-dueling, inner-ear-inverting gigantic-edifice sonic ricochet Lee Perry turf (a good 2-3 years before it was Lee Perry turf). Imagine listening to a sax-heavy improv jazz piece and having difficulty knowing not only where the melody is going to go but where it is at that very moment, and you can appreciate this song on a technical level most bebop cats must've been dumbstruck by. And on a melodic level, it's immediately gratifying: aside from Harris' playing -- which, after the Great Rockcrit Cliche Purge that always gets threatened every so often, will be one of maybe five tracks that could still be referred to without fear of reprisal as "ethereal" -- are a chorus of bizarre soprano female voices who alternate between space-age wails and cocktail-lounge bop scat and sound like they originated from the Logan's Run Tabernacle Choir, a subatomic bass you hardly notice unless you focus on its elasticity, and an inspired beat that swings from subtle time-keeping to unobstructively flashy rolls and flourishes in just the right places. In essence, it sounds like how a Charles Deaton building looks.

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