So, a LOOONG time ago, Lisa Davis suggested that we all talk about some specific music that was really getting us going, music that probably wouldn’t be familiar to the rest of us. I thought it was a great idea, but am only now getting a chance to follow up on it. I want to tell you about a band. It’s a trio from Japan, led by guitarist Uchihashi Kazuhisa, with bass player Nasuno Mitsuru and drummer Yoshigaki Yasuhiro. I saw them in 2001 when I was visiting Europe for two weeks on a small grant from Yale University. I had spent my first few days in Amsterdam, checking out the Holland Festival while sleeping in the home of none other than the estimable Samuel Vriezen, and I took the train down to Rotterdam to this funky-sounding record-store-cum-rock-club called WORM to catch an act I had never heard of called Altered States.
I had no idea what to expect. There weren’t very many people there, maybe around 25 tops. The musicians took the stage (well, really, the area of the floor functioning as the stage) about 45 minutes late, something I wasn’t used to because I hadn’t been to very many jazz concerts at that point. The place reeked of cigarette smoke.
They started playing, and I immediately knew that this was something different. Understand, my idea of “out” music at this point in my life was Yes. I had heard some contemporary classical music that was pretty skronky, sure. And I knew of some pretty bad attempts at crossover here and there. But this was totally out of left field – the band careened wildly between extremes of order and disorder, locking down airtight groove after airtight groove, only to gradually disintegrate or suddenly shatter into a million pieces before coalescing again. One minute they’d be frantically making weird electronic noises and layering loops on top of a cacophany of pure noise, the next they’d be meditating on ambient echoes or rawkin’ a killer blues lick just like down home in Texas. It was all done without a trace of irony or detachment – everything was integrated, part of their repertoire, part of the song. I talked to the guitarist afterwards and was flabbergasted to learn that every moment of the two-hour-plus set was improvised by the group.
The thing I love most about Altered States is this sense of utter, total unpredictability that infects their music. I nearly fell off my chair during the beginning of their second set when the drummer, keeping a simple beat with his feet and one hand, reached back behind him and pulled out a POCKET TRUMPET which he started playing over his own drum beat. Listening to them, I feel like I never truly know what they are going to do next. Note that it’s precisely because they AREN’T afraid of sick grooves or accessible harmonies or recognizable tropes and idioms that they are able to achieve this. What they do is take all of it and put it into a blender, sometimes coming out with fairly conventional stuff, sometimes venturing way out into free-noise land, and most often ending up with an utterly fascinating combination of the familiar and the foreign. I bought a CD at the gig to bring home with me, a live recording of a 1996 concert at the Knitting Factory in New York, and was taken aback to hear the whole band shouting gibberish at the beginning of the third (untitled) track to go along with their spastic playing.
I have a unique relationship with my Altered States CDs. I have to be in a certain mood to really enjoy them. The fact is that, because they’re so heavily improvised, they can be extraordinarily frustrating to listen to. The band will spend minutes slowly building up to a groove, playing with the pieces and the individual elements while avoiding direct rhythmic cohesion, only to get there and let things fall apart after only a few seconds. Introducing the music to others is a nightmare; I keep searching for that one two- or three-minute stretch that really shows them off at their best (read: most listener-friendly), and I can’t find it. But then there are nights, like tonight, when I can listen to it for hours straight and not get tired of it. I love trying to follow the individual instrument lines horizontally as they veer in and out of vertical consonance with the other players; trying to keep track of it all simultaneously is a great workout for the ear (and brain). I love the way they break everything down to its most basic musical elements in such a way that absolutely everything is fair game and on equal footing. My listening experience is most successful when I can sit back and stop asking the music to make sense all the time, and instead just let it take me wherever it wants to go. The music doesn’t change, but somehow I end up in a different place every time.
I highly recommend the band’s 2005 double CD, “Bluffs.” It’s available at Downtown Music Gallery or at Squidco. There are a few sound samples at allmusic.com, although to be honest it really is hard to get an idea of what the band sounds like from 30-second snippets. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.