Sunday, September 12, 2010
An Unbalanced Shift: Robert Wyatt- End of an Ear (1970)
I've never much cared for Soft Machine, their forays into "serious" jazz fusion striking me as noodly prog-jazz of the music conservatory student ensemble variety, but over the years I have developed a deep and abiding respect and love for the works of Robert Wyatt. Wyatt, of course, was the drummer for Soft Machine through their third album, Third, who then went on to fall out of a fourth floor window, paralyze himself from the waist down, and make a new name for himself as a brilliant avant-garde pop-composer, songwriter, and experimentalist, who's been said to have the "saddest voice in the world"-- although that last bit is a bit misleading, since his works aren't particularly morose or pitiful. He just has an affecting tenor. His first post-accident full-length album, Rock Bottom, is a masterpiece. If you've never heard it, then hear it. Get out of here! Go hear it!
End of an Ear came into the world in 1970, three years before the accident and just before Wyatt would leave Soft Machine, unhappy with the band's direction. This record shows his love for jazz indeed runs deep and wild, but not exactly in the direction of the time-signature-obsessed math-prog-fusion of his fellows in the Machine. Ear is a monster free jazz session, bursting with experimentation, relentless repetition, and trippy flourishes. And of course, there's some vocal work from Wyatt, that plaintive tenor of his dancing like a cartoon in wordless phrases.
His more intuitive approach to jazz is not entirely primitive, of course. Says Wyatt himself: "I'm not one for fancy time signatures - if you get too clever with time signatures it sounds like the Newsnight theme - but sometimes you do want an unbalanced shift. You can do anything in 4/4, look at Monk. 4/4 isn't just 4/4 anyway, it's 12/8. All any complex time signature really is, is binary, either twos or ones in various combinations - so no complex time signature is any more complex than a simple one." There are rhythms on here unexpected and "complex" enough that a Berklee boy with knowledge might bore you to death talking about it, but more importantly, it all hits you right in the gut. You don't have to be in the "caring about time signatures club" to get twisted up about this record, you just have to feel that "unbalanced shift."
Fans of free jazz, krautrock, minimalism a la Terry Riley, the kind of textural avant-pop practiced by Roxy Music circa For Your Pleasure, and early Brian Eno will find this to be a welcome yet unfamiliar soundscape not to be missed, and Robert Wyatt fans will find in it an early, seminal Rosetta Stone for his later efforts.
END OF AN EAR (256)