Thursday, March 19, 2009

Jeff Younger Roundup

It's high time we caught up with the one-man jazz/noise juggernaut that is our Jeff. In addition to his steady string of live dates in the feast/famine dichotomy that is the Vancouver scene, his sick mind and fleet fingers have produced two recent releases I'd like to highlight here. Both of them serve as snapshots of a couple of his more difficult, freewheeling, ever-morphing projects.

First up, Jeff Younger's Sandbox's debut release The Nudger (Now Orchestra Records). The Sandbox are a five-piece jazz-type ensemble who team up to play Jeff's game pieces and cartoon scores. Actually, I have no idea what they do, but each gig is an off-kilter musical feast, as well as an exhibition of human frailty and emotion as the performers grin, grimace, try, fail, surrender, thrust, parry, and, I think, grow as people through the experience (as does the audience). The Nudger captures them on a couple 2007 dates at The Cellar running through seven Sandbox selections. I found it interesting to come at this purely as a listener instead of as an audience member. With nothing but the music before me, I felt more like a passenger, able to focus on and enjoy the "scenery" rather than worry about keeping tabs on the surrounding traffic. Nuances emerge; subtleties that get lost in the distracting (for me) flurry of onstage activity. The band's range is impressive. At one end, "Rug Stain Saint" is the kind of improv blowout you might expect when you unleash five monster players such as these. At the other extreme, "Silt" is a gentle, almost post-rock, meditation that, like its title, drifts and gradually settles into a heap. I don't know what it would be like to come at this music without having seen the Sandbox live, but I will say that it makes perfect sense once you've seen what they can do on stage.

Next, we have another debut artifact, volume one from Jeff Younger's Devil Loops. Devil Loops is Jeff's solo guitar project, and it's pure improv, on-the-fly, off-the-cuff, seat-of-the-pants, spur-of-the-moment stuff. In the liner notes, Younger claims he avoids thinking about what he'll play until he takes the stage for a Devil Loops set. It takes a brave performer to step into the abyss, not knowing whether he'll take flight or plunge to his death. Each of the five tracks is a single unedited performance, stretching from the moment Younger puts fingers to string or foot to pedal, to the moment he decides that the piece shall live no more. As the project name states, looping devices are employed, but the looped passages are lengthy enough that the music isn't overtly repetitive. Younger brings in some nimble jazz licks at times, but his diabolical nature ensures that they'll be buried by waves of abstract sound soon enough. It's not quite ambient, not quite jazz, and definitely not a Saturday night album, unless you spend your Saturday nights animating your own Quay Brothers-inspired puppet masterpiece, clawing at imaginary insects beneath your clothing, or imagining what it would be like to die in outer space. After listening to Jeff playing with himself for 70 minutes (hey, we've all been there), I now feel armed with enough gumption to revisit that soul-sappingly terrifying Cluster album a friend gave me a couple years ago. This release invites you to peer into a black, possibly bottomless pit...just don't be startled by the strange emanations from its depths. It's only Devil Loops. Show no fear, listen in the moment, and you'll do fine.

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