Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Look Both Ways #10: Squarepusher has Tomorrow’s 'Weather' Forecast

Experimental musician Squarepusher, a.k.a. Tom Jenkinson, recorded an album last year inspired by something that most people might assume to have been a psychedelic-drug-induced hallucination. Jenkinson laconically calls it “a daydream.” In this fantasy, a magical rock band played a concert involving a guitarist who could travel through time, an entire building that served as a bass amplifier, and drums that switched places with each other and received electromagnetic radiation from stars. The album that resulted, last year’s herky-jerky Just a Souvenir, is not for the faint of heart. But if you get jazzed, so to speak, by exploratory instrumental music, it’s a real gem from one of today’s best progressive musicians.

Squarepusher is performing this Friday in my temporary hometown of Bologna, Italy, so to prepare for the show I’ve been listening to Souvenir, his latest. I’m constantly reminded of its nagging similarities to innovative jazz-fusion group Weather Report’s 1976 LP, Black Market.

Weather Report was founded in the early 1970s by saxophonist Wayne Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, two preeminent expatriates of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way sessions. The group quickly moved away from these roots, embracing a highly arranged and more composition-based sound that cuddled even closer with rock music. Weather Report even scored a hit single – almost unheard of in instrumental music – with “Birdland” in 1977.

Squarepusher, meanwhile, is a one-man band from England who started out in the 1990s as a leader in the virtuosic genre of manic dance music known as drum and bass. Squarepusher has always incorporated jazz and rock into his music, and they are especially relevant on Souvenir.

It’s a truism for me to say that the differences between the artists I compare far outweigh the similarities, but in the case of the relentlessly innovative and unpredictable Squarepusher it bears mentioning. His music is absolutely not a direct legacy of Weather Report, but the similarities are there.

For one, the fretless electric bass is central to both records. Jenkinson’s primary instrument is the bass, and his playing – ranging from surprisingly ear-catching improvisations to rhythm-bending bass lines – is his music’s most engaging element. Black Market was the first Weather Report album to feature Jaco Pastorius, arguably the most influential electric bassist of all time. But it also showcased outgoing bassist Alphonso Johnson, who should not be lost in Pastorius’ shadow. Both players provide conspicuous, energetic foundations for the complex and highly rhythmic compositions on Black Market.

“Gibraltar” is Black Market’s most similar song to the music on Souvenir. When the rhythm section busts in at 1:20, we hear a Johnson bass line that strays from root notes and downbeats, playing games with the quick and funky drum part. Shorter and Zawunil double on melodies that zoom up and shoot back down, and I find myself nodding my head so forcefully it looks like a Dr. Dre beat must be coming through my headphones. On the Souvenir song “Planet Gear,” Squarepusher layers synth chords over a jumpy bass line and a mathy drumbeat, while a climbing, atmospheric synthesizer line recalls Shorter’s solos on the lyricon (a type of saxophone synthesizer he used on Black Market).

And forget about the comparisons for a moment—Souvenir is a record worth hearing regardless of context. To listen to Squarepusher’s bass improvisations on the song “Quadrature” is to hear him turn out scores of incredibly melodic phrases – each of which could serve as hooks for their own fusion compositions – while he ventures in and out of scales. Sometimes he glides along with the fleeting chords, sometimes he collides with them. Some of the phrases are jazz arpeggios and some are classical-influenced lines that stair-step downward, adding color to the chords beneath them.

  • To watch and/or download some high-quality videos of interviews with and performances by Squarepusher, click here and choose the "03. Watch" tab.
A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the April 13 issue of the Tufts Daily.

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