avant-garde- n. A group active in the invention and application of
new techniques...esp. in the arts
Using the given definition, it would be really hard, almost impossible, to consider any music currently produced as avant-garde. I'm not trying to by cynical here, just trying to come to some sort of definition of the music played on David Hurley's great CD, Outer Nebula Inner Nebula. Let's go with Creative Improvised Music.
Hurley is a San Diego based drummer/composer whom I found about in the great Waxpoetics magazine. On this CD, which seems to be dedicated to Elvin Jones, Hurley leads quartets, trios, and duo's through six tunes, augmented by four more solo multi-tracked ones. The former for the most part sound improvised, and are characterized by their heavy emphasis on percussion. Hurley generally augments his drumming with djembe and junjun, played by Leonard Mack II and Ousmane Traore. This percussion heavy approach gives the ensemble tunes a great AACM or Sun Ra Arkestra feel, with lots of clicking, chirping, chiming and bubbling sounds surrounding the alto saxophone soloing of Zuri Waters. Waters takes good advantage of his often lone melodic role within the ensembles, soloing in free form interaction with the percussive bed around his sounds. His solo on Inner Nebula is particularly great; at one point I swear I hear him quoting Aaron Copeland! On Deep Giant squid he takes a slower, more contemplative approach for a while before launching off into the depths of the tune, interacting with the spacey-as hell organ bleeping of Preston Swirnoff. His tone throughout the disc is raw, kind of like Sonny Simmons or Archie Shepp. Hurley's trap set drumming on the cuts with other players in pretty remarkable. Even during his most heated interactive moments, he has a great sense of space, as in leave some for everyone else. Oftentimes it seems like free drummers take all of the freedom and none of the discipline, either groove-wise or ensemble-wise. David's drumming never comes across as overbearing. One gets a sense that he's really listening to his band mates. On the solo pieces, the listener is treated to more contemplative soundscapes, often reminiscent of John Cage's percussion pieces. Hurley is particularly effective with the brushes on Shake the Noise Maker as he explores quiet sounds on his expertly tuned kit. Here is where the Elvin influence really comes across (see the track Who Does She Hope to Be? on Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages for comparison). Cosmic Moon March ups the tempo a bit, with groovy Moog and balaphon playing making it sound like the music in the club in which Sun Ra took up residence after leaving this planet. David drops the drums entirely for the fifty second long Solar Wind Dance, a weird duet with violinist Brian Ellis. The song's strange ambiance is disturbing, all the more effective for it's brevity.
In terms of production, Inner Nebula Outer Nebula is quite strong . Hurley wisely keeps tunes on the shorter side of the spectrum, thereby avoiding one major pitfall encountered in improvised recordings: the CD length track. This wise editing allows the listener to move through the different spaces presented by his various combos, getting the full effect and not having to put up with the inevitable filler that occurs within group improvisations at just about any level. The sound is warm, with great separation between the various instruments; even the "little sounds" of shakers and bells come across well in the mix.
Inner Nebula Outer Nebula is a great example of creative, improvised music. At this point, so many years after the initial forays of the Jazz Avant-Garde, I hesitate to give it that description. I can unhesitatingly call if cool, fun, creative, funky, spacey, and ass-kicking. If you dig any of those factors in your ears, you could do a hell of a lot worse.