rare and forgotten experimental music

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Jon Gibson - In Good Company

Jon Gibson is probably one of the most important performers in Minimalist music. He primarily plays saxophone and clarinet, plus occasional flute. He played in the premieres Terry Riley's "In C," Steve Reich's "Drumming," was a founding member of Philip Glass' ensemble, and so premiered a whole lot of his early work, and has worked and recorded with LaMonte Young, Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Curran, and pretty much every major American Minimalistish composer who needed a reed player.

As a composer he's somewhat less known, though his work is really up there with all of those guys. He made two albums on Philip Glass' old Chatham Square label in the 70s, "Two Solo Pieces" and "Visitations," which have been rereleased on CD by the Italian New Tone label with bonus tracks (hard to find, but Forced Exposure has them). Both of these albums are among the top 70's minimalist recordings. "Two Solo Pieces" has an amazing piece performed on a church pipe organ, somewhat reminiscent of Charlemagne Palestine's organ music - very dense, long tones clusters, walls of sound. "Visitations" has some neat strange soundscapey stuff, and the bonus tracks on both CDs are just as worthwhile as the main albums.

He also put out a CD on John Zorn's Tzadik label in 2006, "Criss X Cross," which actually consists of recordings from 1979, solo pieces played by Gibson of continuous, meandering saxophone and flute lines, with some electronic effects.

This CD here, "In Good Company," is a showcase for Jon the performer as well as the composer, and serves as something as a sampler of classic Minimalist music, though most of it was unrecorded at the time the CD came out. It features music from Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams, the very infrequently recorded Terry Jennings, as well as Gibson himself, and features LaMonte Young on piano on one track.

The disc starts off with Gibson's "Waltz" (1982), a nice, simple little waltz performed on piano and sax. Nothing mind-blowing, but it's a pleasant enough way to start the album.

Next is John Adams' "Pat's Aria" (1987), a piece from his opera Nixon in China, with the vocal line here performed by Gibson on saxophone, with piano and synth accompaniment. It's a gorgeous piece, and I much prefer it to the vocal version, at least as a stand-alone piece of music.

Steve Reich's "Reed Phase" (1967) is next, one of Reich's early phasing pieces. This is the first recording of this piece, and if you've heard any of Reich's phasing works from the late 60's you know what to expect. Gibson plays a short repeating phrase on sax, then overdubs himself playing the same phrase several times slightly out of phase, creating shifting clouds of sound. With the reed based instrumentation here, the sound ends up almost sounding like bagpipes. Pretty interesting.

Terry Jennings' "Terry's G Dorian Blues" (1962) follows, being the earliest composed piece on the disc. Jennings was a friend and contemporary of LaMonte Young, and this is one of the very few recordings of his work available. His obscurity is probably partly due to the fact that he died in 1981, so he never got to benefit from the relative surge in interest in early Minimalist music in the 1990s. There's a recent CD on UK label Another Timbre which features 5 piano pieces of his performed by John Tilbury (which I just ordered - on sale at the label website until June 30th 2010 - sounds excellent), the release of which probably triples the amount of his music which is available. The piece on this album is interesting though somewhat hampered by the early '90s keyboard sounds (something which afflicts many of the pieces on this disc to varying degrees). It's a 12-bar blues piece with a 5-note repeating melodic pattern played over it, which creates a strange shifting melody. The electric piano is played by LaMonte Young, one of the very few commercial recordings of him as a performer.

After that is "Bed" (1976), from Philip Glass' epic "Einstein on the Beach." Originally it was performed with vocalists, but here is just keyboards and saxes. Since the vocals are all wordless, it transitions to sax very nicely, and it's nice to hear just this extract of the mammoth work which it comes from.

Terry Riley's "Tread on the Trail" (1965) is next, a piece from the same era as his classic "In C", and this is the first recording of it. It ends up sounding something like a jazzier "In C", with repeated phrases appearing at different times among the different instruments. Nice, and an important, neglected piece.

Another of Gibson's pieces is next, "Song 3" (1976). According to the liner notes it was inspired by bagpipe music, and it sounds like it, with long tones contrasted with very short, quick bursts of ornamentation, and a continuous sound created by Gibson's mastery of circular breathing. Fantastic stuff.

Next is another Philip Glass piece, "Gradus (For Jon Gibson)" (1968), a very early Glass work, obviously composed for Gibson himself. Solo saxophone, quick, repeating phrases and a shifting accent pattern make this an interesting, trancey piece.

The disc ends with Gibson's "Extensions II" (1981). It features recorded bird sounds, soundscapes, electronic drones, percussion and saxophones, and it's an interesting piece, though it might veer a little close to new-age at times.

All in all this disc is a great listen the whole way through, and is historically quite significant as it features the only recordings of very early minimalist works by a number of major composers. I think it can also be said that this is the only one album with contributions from all of the Big Four American Minimalists (Young, Reilly, Reich and Glass). Shame about the somewhat dated production and keyboard sounds but that's usually not too distracting.

This CD was released in 1992 on Point Music, a label which I think was run by Philip Glass, and also put out some great stuff from Arthur Russell, Gavin Bryars and others. Point was connected to some major labels but ceased to exist sometime in the late 1990s, and I think everything on it has since gone out of print, though some of the albums they put out are still pretty easy to find.