Recorded 1978, 1979 and 1983
Sometime in mid-1970, Tim Parr from Phoenix AZ brought together several musical soulmates to listen to Rock in Opposition movement’s groundbreaking records and to improvise around stylistically related ideas. Parr on guitar, Bill Johnston on cello, Bob Stearman on drums, Craig Bork on keyboards, Tim Lyons on bass and Joe Halajian clarinets and saxes evolved together under several monikers, including the unpronounceable Knebnagäuje. After moving to Washington State, the band made its first recordings – a testimony of eventful elaborations into the non-homogenous RIO style. The musicians changed the domicile several times, and recorded more tapes as Pocket Orchestra.
Despite their uncanny ability to string together a plethora of intricately subsumed sets with disorienting complexity, the band failed to publish any of its output before its eventual disintegration in mid-1980s. They never got back to play together again, but their music was rightfully resurrected by the now defunct MIO label.
A brooding introduction is only a camouflage for the heavily connectionist exploration of multitracked saxophones, piano interludes, electric guitar races and a guest violin courtesy Craig Fry of Cartoon. The vitalist tempo shifts with woodwinds that fall short of spasmodic big band romps are closer to the legacy of Moving Gelatine Plates than Willem Breuker. Other influences are aplenty. Bob Stearman’s signature percussive “scattering” proves that he studied assiduously how Chris Cutler made accents fall between beats. On the other hand, the augmented “wind section”, multitracked to perfect unison recalls the Muffins – then the most perfectionist of RIO-like bands in the country. Unlike any of these predecessors, however, Pocket Orchestra’s sonorities are more extreme, especially in high register pinpointed by squeaky clarinets and silicate acoustic guitar.
Hearing Bill Johnston on misty cello buttressed by bass and clarinet we may be expecting a more coherent story development. But although the somber mood evokes more Noetra than ECM, discontinuity reigns. After several seconds of a swinging piano, keyboards schlep along a fusion theme, equipped with a nearly Canterbury-tinged optimism. This is Craig Bork’s composition and his keyboard grandstanding will dominate the rest of the piece. The pattern becomes more choppy, with high-pitched keyboards, harmonic guitar and repetitive lines from the saxes. Here the Bob Stearman’s work is more reminiscent of Arti e Mestieri’s Furio Chirico’s fast-paced oscillations. He was many a proghead’s drumming hero.
A somewhat spuriously delinquent composition, restlessly meandering between varying time signatures and moods, piling up interesting ideas but then segmenting them in a codified, linear fashion. After clarinet’s opening line, the harmonic cues come from the piano. Slowly the tension builds up staccato until the softer side of the band opens, with more reflective moments for acoustic guitar and piano. They are in turn interrupted by more daring parts with winds, electric guitar and piano/drums ascensions. The structure is unstable and becomes semi-abstract when the clarinet and multiplied percussion intervene. Somehow, the keyboards always pull everything together and allow the drummer to resume his endothermic, metric role. A snippet of a theme appears, eagle-spread between comical bass clarinet and a celestial piece from mellotron (?). The colorful use of acoustic guitar dredges up deposits from both the Italian and UK progressive tradition, but some of the organ passages are quite suspect in the conventional, regressive application of the chords. On the whole, the composition defeats itself. Despite the disorienting multiplicity of ideas, the heavily composed 13 minute track is practically devoid of any recognizable structure. The short parenthesis that opens and closes the piece was supposed to single-handedly carry the fleeting ledgers of its formal scaffolding. This was a risky proposition.
Craig Bork penned these alternating moods between atmospheric intrigue, Montmartre lyricism and a hurried jazz-rock run. Almost a latterday Nino Rota – style mystery creeps in on piano and saxophone. The best moment gushes when the cello, played pizzicato, encounters a solo piano. Soon, a pretentious electric guitar and saxophones slowly approach from a more familiar terrain. Sibilant organ will languish, as if making commentaries on the attempts by the saxophone and the rhythm section to escape from this formal cul de sac. Instead, they will have to circulate within a very finite domain. Soprano saxophone will introduce a romantic note with the ease of Steve Lacy, while the piano/organ/drums/bass neoclassicism could almost come from Cartoon – a band Pocket Orchestra befriended. Unfortunately, the track buckles again under the weight of its inveterate non-linearity.
Although the piece starts in abstract territory, its high pitched guitar and rhythm sections will soon re-emerge, forging ahead in choking staccato, and breezing, not without problems, through sparse percussive distractions. Later a more straightforward guitar/organ theme will appear with the hyperactive drummer rushing presto vivace ahead of the soloing anti-melodists. For the first time on this record a consistent melodic theme makes its appearance – a guitar paints a memory of the first exhilarating springtime walk after months of self-imposed exile.
White Organ Meats
Joe Halajian’s multitracked saxophones and a guitar timbre stolen from Henry Cow’s larder open for a composition which, as all the others, would surprise us by not surprising… Tempo reversals, skating lines, slow-ups and speed-downs alternate in various orders. Solid bass rumble and electric piano will support the ascensions and descents by the saxophone and guitar combo. There is, finally, a recurrent theme, only metabolized by refined drum rolls. Tim Parr’s guitar comes to the fore and prances around satirically, eventually absorbed by bubbly electronic effects.
Grandma Coming Down the Hall with a Hatchet
All children know this circus fanfare. Here, it will derail sardonically. Still, applying humor to the RIO format was the prerogative of Rascal Reporters so Tim Parr & Co do not persist. Instead, we are served with a quick succession of illustrative themes for saxophones, a be-bop fragment, a microrhythmic tabla (Warren Ashford).and a downy flute successfully resurrecting the spirit of Ian McDonald (Steve Parr).
The final, 16 minute-long composition is Knebnagäuje’s tour de force. This is a tri-modal structure privileged by early Muffins: theme-development-abstraction-theme-development-abstraction… A very pleasant electric piano slowly opens with competent support from Tim Lyons’ bass. When the clarinet rises, a different track unfolds – an allegedly cosmic synthesizer, an overdrive guitar, and Aylerian saxophone. This speculative structure soon collapses and we are left with the ubiquitous improvisation for electric piano and the drummer’s light but supersonic touch. The saxophone would occasionally howl until the main theme returns. In the second development, the squadron of saxophones, keyboards and guitar issues a very strong warning of an approaching challenge. Acceleration. Deceleration. Another abstract moment brings forth electronic feedback and unorthodox fiddling with the keyboard. Suddenly, the unbelievable happens – a shockingly Iberian quote from Chick Corea’s “La Fiesta”. The electric piano and the drums follow the original surge even though the melodic line will not surface here. Habituation is out of question – the swirling soup of electronic keyboards, velvety tenorsax and reactive drums will strut towards the end of the collection through various landforms.
Tim Parr and Tim Lyons passed away several years after Pocket Orchestra disbanded and later Bob Stearman suffered a stroke. To date, only one archival collection has been made available and it has been presented here.
POCKET ORCHESTRA / KNEBNAGÄUJE: “Pocket Orchestra / Knebnagäuje” (1978-1983)