Built for Speed

Ron Anderson’s PAK
Secret Curve
(Tzadik)

Ron Anderson is the best kind of madman. There’s just no other way to say it.

With Secret Curve, the Brooklyn musician’s third outing with the avant-jazz-rock trio PAK, Anderson has willed into being something so mind-bending, frenetic, and complex—but tight and composed—that it mocks attempts to fit it into genre boundaries or even find points of reference to map its trajectories. This is a record that even normally cautious aficionados might use the word “masterpiece” to describe.

Anderson defines his group’s modus operandi from the very first track, an “Overture” that runs 68 seconds but seems to contain a different time signature for every exhalation. There’s more than a nod to the masterful John Zorn and Naked City in the way the group races through measures at full speed and then stops at a micro-moment’s notice. But there’s more to the disc than that. Anderson’s color palette borrows from the sonic pastiche of Mr. Bungle and the punk-inspired angularity of the Minutemen, while contemporaries like Elliott Sharp and jazz staples like Ornette Coleman also find a place in the mix. Let’s avoid “blender” analogies altogether and just say it sounds like an unnatural tryst between swing and math rock. But a friend of mine might have put it best: “This is the music Thelonious Monk would be making if he were alive today.”

Unlike their earlier Motel CD, Secret Curve is not an adventure primarily for rock instruments or rock phrasings. While the rhythmic precision of Anderson, who plays bass, and drummer Keith Abrams surely grab for the spotlight, this is a fully realized record and one with many moving parts—including often-brilliant contributions on trumpet, piano, French horn, violin, electronics, and tenor and bass saxophones. Yes, there is no guitar. And yet, often, Secret Curve can make big rock records with big rock sounds seem flaccid by comparison.

Take the opening of “Caffeine Static Rendezvous,” in which bass, drums, piano, and keyboard pound out furious staccato notes before breaking into extended prog-rock musings that would make the members of King Crimson or Cheer-Accident blush. Anderson and crew follow these bridges with boozy late-night jazz, horns blaring their innuendos as Anthony Coleman slurs out piano measures over densely orchestrated rhythms.

But Anderson is best when he has speed and precision on his side. The horns at the beginning of the 10-minute-long “Caro-Kann” bleat in ecstasy over percussion that’s so ridiculously precise it’s impossible to tap your feet to it. Near the two-minute mark, the group boils things down and the proceedings border on some mutant form of ska. Five minutes in, we’re back into PAK’s frenetic serenade, Anderson’s fingers sprinting across the fretboard as Abrams jolts from snare rolls to pounding toms to ride cymbals to off-time kick drums and then right back around.

The disc’s title track, a jaw-dropping journey planted near the record’s center, is PAK at its most frenetic. Though the opening moments briefly suggest a sense of melancholy, that doesn’t last long. Within seconds, we’re back into the fray as PAK lurches from hyper-pressurized jazz-rock to intricate post-prog/punk, each rejiggered time signature as much a thrill as the one that came before it. Three quarters of the way through the tune, there’s a breakdown of electronics and bass that might challenge many listeners’ notions of just how precise a band can sound in the studio without some serious computer editing. But they pull it off without fail and simply move on to the next exploration.

This record is so good you could fill pages just trying to describe the passages of its eleven instrumentals. Listen to “E4 Or D4?,” where PAK’s conventional band sound is sliced and scissored and taped back together in the mix, and the punky introduction to “Trebuchet,” which would be great for moshing if not for the odd juxtaposition of punk elements with sax and piano. Consider the fluid bass measures of “Let Me Tell You Something” and the way they act as glue as the horns wail and the drums skitter and scatter across the landscape. Or there’s the punchy bass of “No Future.” Or “Mama’s Little Anarchist,” which is worth the price of admission for the title alone. There’s just not a dud on the disc.

The “industry” that feeds on popular music can make a big stink about profanity to protect innocent ears. But Anderson’s new record is the opposite of profane, bordering on a kind of sonic transcendence, though it’s not a record for everyone.. This is challenging music and, maybe even more so, the kind of music that either inspires other musicians or convinces them they’re not worth their salt. In any case, I suggest PAK start labeling their work, if only to keep away the faint of heart. This is passionate music played passionately, and someone needs to prepare the world for what’s inside.

It’s been six years since the last regular album (Motel) by PAK, the jazz trio led by Ron Anderson. In the meantime, the New York based mastermind has been anything but idle, and despite the departure of bass god Jesse Krakow, there is no reason not to look forward to this newest endeavour by this incredible band. The line-up change made Anderson switch from his main instrument guitar to the bass guitar, allowing Secret Curve to make it over the rounds without any six string extravaganza. Keith Abrams (Time Of Orchids, Kayo Dot) is still the drummer. Newest recruit is Tim Byrnes (Friendly Bears, Candiria) who next to his trumpet also plays this time French horn and keyboards. This core band is joined by many guest who provide piano (Anthony Coleman, Eve Risser), violin (Tom Swafford), assorted wood winds (Stefan Zeniuk) and electronics / tape manipulation (Jérôme Noetinger).

Ron Anderson has collaborated in the past already with a lot of standout avant-garde artists like Ruins, Elliott Sharp, Sun City Girls and Otomo Yoshihide, just to name a few. These decades of experience definitely show on Secret Curve, his probably most extreme and best album to date. Main focus lies on the interplay between the bass guitar and the drums, a furious cocktail of freewheeling rhythm work making it unscathed through the most crazy time signatures a composer can think of. Tym Byrnes’s trumpets takes over the role that you would normally expect from a vocalist, adding more lyrical touches to the music. Even though PAK is “only” a trio, it’s especially the guest pianists who also procure an important and not to be underestimated dimension.

All of this points in the direction of free jazz, but apart from the ferocity of that genre, I am pretty sure that everything you hear is thoroughly composed and reproduced by musicians out of this world. Centrepiece is the nearly ten minute long Caro-Kann in the middle of the record, but the shorter numbers are even more convincing. Absolute highlights are the incredibly wild title track, the rather short Blinding Light whose rhythm will make you think of a progressive thrash metal band, and the concluding Kempelen’s Automaton whose more conciliatory attitude makes for a nice ending.

Rest assured: an album like Secret Curve will only be released once or twice every decade. The fusion of jazz and rock music is certainly not a new idea, but I can’t think of any other artist who is able to find such a fine balance. In this case, Anderson, Abrams, Byrnes and guests have succeeded in combining the virtuoso delicacy of jazz with the unrelenting energy of rock music. Anything less than the maximum grade would be a slap in the face of the musicians!

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