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Jeff Song & Lowbrow — Rules of Engagement
(Asian Improv AIE0026, 1996, CD)

by Mike Ezzo, Published 1997-05-01

Rules of Engagement Cover art

On paper, a project such as this one would likely scare off the majority of Exposé readers — an entire CD of nine lengthy and involved free-form pieces. The problem of where to edit assumes paramount importance with improvisation. Admittedly it does elude them on occasion, as improv is wont to do, and a few of their efforts suffer from an excess of soloing. But what is significant about Rules of Engagement is that it represents non-jazz- oriented improvisation. This achieves its character by drawing more upon rock, classical, and ethnic sources. Rather than inviting a myriad guests, they simply intimate the sense of Asian cultures in the music, indulging a longing to explore other traditions, leaving authenticity for someone else to pursue. Instrumental in helming this exploration, in my opinion, is their percussionist. John Mettam, the man in question, uses cymbals quite sparingly, and when he does it's almost never orthodox. A strict drum beat pops up no more than once over the entire span of Rules of Engagement. He has a great sense of space and appropriateness in choosing the timbres and colors when accompanying, and when leading as well. This inspired player seems a bottomless well of ideas and approaches; their music would be decidedly different without him. Perhaps unlikely to accrue any new converts to the free improv world, this outing is still a unique slant on the genre, if for no other reason than Lowbrow's collective sense of restraint. Tendencies for rambling are surprisingly few while dynamically they keep it pretty well under a dull roar for the bulk of the recording. This would be sure to startle anyone expecting an Ornette Coleman free jazz blow-out session. And they infuse the work with enough contrast instrumentally to avert wearing the listener out. Solo cello pops in surprisingly, with drum backing on "The Dragon Song." It could pass for Japanese or Korean if you stretch the imagination. It also features some nice duet work; the most song-like piece, reminding me of bits of Zappa's The Grand Wazoo. Cellist Matt Turner doubles on piano and a fine performance he does put in there as well — thoughtful, expressive playing, with a strong sensitivity to texture and color. For those who may be scared off from improvisation because of its usual dominance by jazz musicians, I recommend this one.


Filed under: New releases, Issue 12, 1996 releases

Related artist(s): Jeff Song

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