By the mid-1980s, Wayne Horvitz (keyboards), Butch Morris (cornet) and Robert Previte (drums) were household names on the downtown NY scene. Morris had recently explored the trio format with two other musicians, combining his astral, satiny cornet pitch with the electronic soundscapes generated by traditional instruments. Together with Horvitz and Previte, he decided to juxtapose his glacially restrained style with polycentric contributions on piano, keyboards, marimba and drums. The results were unusual. The lethargic pace of the recordings induced critics to seek polar metaphors, which could have been induced by the cover art that adorned the LP. But if the arctic vocabulary applies, then it is in the unexpected reflections, twinkles and glows that catch up with an attentive listener with lagged irregularity.
The results of the encounter between the three musicians barely carried any similarities to their contemporaneous activity. Horvitz had spent most of his time perfecting saccharine keyboard vignettes and leading unassertive pop-jazz combos. Morris’s records were dominated by ambitious but disorienting scores for large-scale timbral ensembles. Previte uncharacteristically hesitated between baroque jazz and industrial soundscapes. Since the 1980s, all the three musicians have enjoyed illustrious careers, bifurcating from the no man’s land of “Nine Below Zero” into more easily defined pop rock jazz (Horvitz), orchestral scores (Morris) and eclectic jazz formats (Previte).
3 Places in Suburban California
Muted cornet’s nasal sound opens the record, soon retooled into bright, full tone accompanied by acoustic piano. Percussive contribution languishes, never too eager to catch up, while spiraling electronics flourishes diffusely. The aggregation of loud acoustic piano chords and electronic spiderweb calls to mind some of Heiner Goebbels’s sonic canvases from that era. Butch Morris extracts duck-like squawks from the cornet – just enough to bite through electronic hissing and shuffling headwinds. Bobby Previte’s accents on drums follow close upon the piano’s rare, but decisive chords. He focuses alternatively on a buzzy snare drum or on hollow, dark skins treated with mallets. Then a marimba begins its clockwise regularity, bringing order to this smattering of electronic sizzles and swizzles. The piano and the drumset are then snuffed out and DX-7 appears. This was one of the most popular digital synthesizers in the 1980s – here endowed with timbales “voice”. The DX-7 has a much shorter resonance than “real” timbales and allows Horvitz to improvise over the marimba’s gamelanic ornaments.
Nine Below Zero
A wake-up call from the cornet and ringing electronic stridence, braying like an antique doll. The DX-7 dominates here again in terms of both tone projection and velocity. The veiled, muted cornet squabbles with this synthesized double helix and Wayne Horvitz re-emerges confidently on amplified piano. A circular rhythm surfaces briefly, but is shut out by the bubbly, squeakly, disconcerting bush of microtones. The low range is protected by Previte’s tympani, while Morris spends most of his time on sustained notes that are so muted that his instrument nearly achieves a trombone-like, corky tonality. In less dynamic moments, his cornet sounds more like a round, mellower fluegelhorn, soaring above a dissolving, melting, amplified piano.
This is the first of Robin Holcomb’s compositions in this collection. It opens with acoustic piano (how else?) and a glass-like note that after a brief pause proves to be a shade of cornet. This time, the electronic sweep is very discrete, limited to a sparse, dotted, bass line. Henceforth, we are mostly served with a duo for a hesitant cornet and a vacillating piano. Horvitz and Morris do not really play with each other, but rather listen (…) and then respond (…), aided occasionally by the near-infrasound of some electronic discretion. Scraps of melody are fidgety until a childlike piano figure ushers in the full-tone, bright cornet. They strut along, distinguished and monumental, before we realize that this is but a coda of a formally unbalanced composition.
A Gerswhinesque piano theme looms up inconsolable, only to be crowded by other, more talkative partners – a garrulous piano and a loquacious synthesizer. Then a repetitive, syncopated theme appears from the entire trio, with dry skin rattle and some marimba patter. It is an unhurried affair, always ready to stop over on a brownstone’s porch and look idly across a sun-drenched alley. So much for the Arctic imagery?
Remind Me of You
A processional cornet and tambourine intro has something of a church lament – ceremonial and majestic. An electric organ sound surges from behind, propping up the cornet’s notes to exaltation. When it dies down, lonely tambourine will carry the torch for a little longer…
Roland drum machine, coupled with real drums throw the lost cornet and piano into a torrent of hyper-rapid progressions worth of David Van Tiegham’s early videos. From today’s perspective it is hard to comprehend that fascination with in-human rhythms that left scars on many 1980s’ recordings. Interestingly however, the interplay between the man and the machine on this track actually pays off. Morris spins around without suffering vertigoes and Previte’s cymbals add an anthropogenic slant to the otherwise predictable setting.
After All These Years
This is DX-7 at its most lyrical and romantic. The synthesizer’s duo with marimba sketches a beautiful song as if lifted from a music box discovered in the dusty attic. Perched against microscopic marimba rolls, Morris’s improvisation is like a modal update on 1950’s cool jazz. Tantalizingly idyllic and evanescent, the trio abandons us in our longing for the melancholic, defining top seven notes from any of the three main actors: marimba, DX-7 or the cornet. The belatedly recurrent motif is the strongest moment on the record.
Martial drumming changes the setting. Cavernous electronics croons eerily while a taped, disfigured, amplified piano slows down in mid-tempo. Contorted cornet and prepared piano strings occasionally ooze through the ghastly croon. Finally a high-voltage crack from the rhythm machine extinguishes this turbulent fragment.
Another of Robin Holcomb’s non-linear compositions. Her manner of writing melodic piano tunes with shifting tempos is in full evidence here, prefiguring her monumental “Larks They Crazy” LP, two years later. Robert Previte adds some shades of grey with his brushwork touches on the otherwise nocturnal, inert, almost amnesiac theme. We are never certain if the main axis will recur and this frustrated expectation of the familiar chord progression forces us to focus on the irregularity of silences and pauses. Like a mouse in a labyrinth, the track always finds a way out and proceeds with more vigor, making it a variegated, rather than simply anemic exploration. Holcomb’s writing is so strong that it is not surprising that the trio soon decided to pursue the adventure using her compositions.
The trio appeared only on two recordings, replicating the formula on “Todos Santos”, entirely devoted to Robin Holcomb’s compositions. Butch Morris had previously appeared in a similarly restrained collection of aural sculptures with electric guitar and trombone.
Wayne HORVITZ – Butch MORRIS – William PARKER: “Some Order Long Understood” (1983)
Bill HORVITZ – Butch MORRIS – J.A. DEANE: “Trios” (1985)
Wayne HORVITZ – Butch MORRIS – Robert PREVITE: “Nine Below Zero” (1986)
Wayne HORVITZ – Butch MORRIS – Robert PREVITE: “Todos Santos” (1988)
Those who would like to explore these artists’ other recordings should keep in mind that they bear no relation to the music described here.
Robin Holcomb’s piano songbooks of the era were collected on two LPs. Wayne Horvitz (Holcomb’s husband) once admitted that he would sacrifice his little finger to become as accomplished a composer as his wife.
Robin HOLCOMB: “Larks They Crazy” (1988)
Robin HOLCOMB: “Robin Holcomb” (1990)