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Nihilistic Spasm Band and Clusone 3

By Douglas Wolk

MAY 17, 1999:  "When you eliminate the scale, the key, the repertoire, the category, the traditional rules, and even the breaking of the rules, what is left?" Bassist Hugh McIntyre wrote that in the liner notes to the Nihilist Spasm Band's second album, 20 years ago. His answer: "We can only rely on each other."

The veteran improv group's new album is called Every Monday Night (Alchemy), a reference to when the band play. That would be every Monday night for the last 33 years, generally in their home town of London, Ontario, whether an audience shows up or not. (They've played in the United States fewer than half a dozen times.) The NSB's idea of "free improvisation" basically means "making a huge racket": they build most of their instruments themselves, most famously Art Pratten's modified violin, the "Pratt-a-various." Last month, they hosted the second annual No Music Festival in their home town, with improvisers from England, Canada, Japan, and the States making all kinds of rackets together and individually. They've remained consistent in membership and style over the years -- six of the eight original members are still in the group. Yet they've made only a handful of albums in that time.

There's one notable exception to their absence of a repertoire: whereas most of the Nihilist Spasm Band play whatever they feel like, their songs have formalized lyrics intoned by Bill Exley in his stentorian schoolteacher's voice. (After the words are done and the rest of the band are still going on, Exley tends to join in by banging on a cooking pot.) "I dreamed I was living in paradise," he cries on the new album, "But awoke from my dream at sunrise/To discover I was still in London, Ontario!" Elsewhere, he commands anyone who thinks the band are too loud to "break the filters from your smokes and stick them in your ears," reads a list of cities in Newfoundland, and grunts wordlessly through "Slow Dance."

As McIntyre suggests, collective musicianship is everything to the Nihilists: for a band who tend to sound like a herd of warring bull elephants and eschew melody and rhythm altogether, they're remarkably sensitive to one another's playing, underscoring their fellow members or stepping back from the spotlight as the moment demands it. And they work in tandem with Exley's wry declamations, playing along with the sense and sound of the words.

Over on the other side of the world, in Amsterdam, the extraordinary Clusone 3, who broke up last year after 10 years together, had a far more combative group dynamic and a very different approach to integrating "repertoire" with free improvisation. Clarinettist/saxophonist Michael Moore, cellist Ernst Reijseger (who often strums his instrument sideways, like a guitar), and hyperactive drummer Han Bennink started off as a pure improv group but found they had more fun if they took Tin Pan Alley and other standards to use as touchpoints. Their working method was essentially, "You want to play that song? Go ahead, but I'm going to play this one until one of us wins." In their long, continuous sets, they'd improvise their way into the first theme they could all agree on, then twist it inside out, unravel it into sputters of free sound, and gradually coalesce into another tune. Combined with Bennink's habit of wandering around the stage, playing anything or anyone within reach of his sticks, lighting fires inside his hi-hat (which produced good smoke rings), and occasionally attempting to sing a line or two, it made for deliriously wild, unpredictable performances.

Their new, posthumous studio album, Rara Avis (Hatology), offers 14 songs with birds in their names, most of them American-popular-song standards of one stripe or another -- "Skylark," "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along" -- but some not, like Saint-Saëns's cello staple "Le cygne" ("The Swan") and Steve Lacy's way-out-there "Duck," for which all three of them approximate duck calls. It's less chaotic than their live appearances (and their two marvelous live albums, Love Henry and I Am an Indian, on Gramavision/Rykodisc); still, you couldn't mistake it for traditional jazz, even though Moore, the most sincere melodist of the three, gets off some gorgeously lyrical lines. It's also got one great conceptual twist. The Clusones practiced for the album by learning some songs and motifs from the species that inspired the album's repertoire. You can hear the band quoting and adapting these birds throughout the disc. It makes Rara Avis's repertoire more than a novelty: the album becomes a tribute to the feathered originators of song-based improvisation, and the tunes they've always sung.

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