Twisted Tonalities from David Fiuczynski
An image of a person or an object which is grossly distorted is typically perceived as cartoonish. But take a portrait and distort the eyes, or the mouth, or the teeth just a little, and suddenly it becomes grotesque, even menacing. That’s exactly what guitarist David Fiuczynski does on his latest album, Planet Microjam, and that’s why it’s one of the most deliciously creepy releases of recent years. He uses familiar architecture – jazz, funk, classical and even a reggae groove or two – as a framework for slippery, quavery tonalities that refuse to resolve in any ordinary sense. The average listener might say that he sounds like he’s playing out of tune, which actually is just the opposite of what’s happening: there’s a very distinct (and fascinating, and often thrilling) harmonic language here, it’s just that he and his bandmates seem to be the only ones who speak it. The group includes Evan Marien on bass, Evgeny Lebedev on piano, David Radley on violin, Takeru Yamazaki on keyboards and a rotating cast of drummers including Kenwood Dennard, Jovol Bell, Jack DeJohnette and Club D’Elf’s Eric Kerr.
Obviously, microtonal music has been around for centuries. Every time a horn player or guitarist hits a blue note, that’s a microtone; rock bands like Public Image Ltd. and Sonic Youth built careers out of shimmery, otherworldly guitar sonics that resonate beyond the usual major and minor scales. One of Fiuczynski’s many tricks here is to do the opposite of what a blues or jazz guitarist typically does, bending a note to add an element of tension: playing a fretless or quartertone guitar, he hits a note that in the western scale would be considered flat, then bends that upward to land squarely where he’s going. There are plenty of other tricks here, some borrowed from Indian and Asian music, some uniquely his own, and he blends them artfully for an effect that ranges from chilling to comedic. Fiuczynski can be very funny: there are a couple of instances where he does a “look, ma, see how many notes there are in this scale” thing, other times doing microtonal Wes Montgomery, or a twisted fanfare, or an off-key quote or two. But most of the album is serious and disconcerting.
With the exception of a spaciously bucolic arrangement of a traditional Chinese melody, this is an upper-register album: there aren’t a lot of low notes, even from the bass and the piano. Fiuczynski will frequently wiggle around a note in the style of a Hawaiian slack key guitarist; other times, he swoops and dives like a sitarist, plays with a slide or matter-of-factly walks his way through the wobbly sonics. The album opens cleverly with Micro Emperor, an arrangement of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, reinvented as a rather joyous Indian-flavored dance. Lebedev’s piano offers artful chromatic allusions to his bandmates’ murkily keening tonalities on the second track, set to a slow, sludgy reggae-tinged groove. There are two tracks based on a quartertone string quartet by Julian Carrilo: the first pensive and blues-tinted, the second a sinister, Lynchian nocturne with a delicious contrapuntal guitar interlude. Sun Ra’s Sun Song gets redone as a cross between a slide blues and a sitar piece (although it isn’t exactly either one); they follow that with Fiuczynski’s Horos Fuzitivos, a cryptic, energetic, microtonal take on current-day gypsy jazz fusion. A little later they slide into a spacious approximation of a tango, DeJohnette’s quiet rumble enhancing the otherworldly mood.
A minimalist, querulous mini-raga, Green Lament segues into the album’s most intense, memorable track, the aptly titled Apprehension. That one begins with warped washes of sound over tricky polyrhythms, stretches out with an anxious, sustained violin solo, muddles around and then winds down like a broken toy at the end. The album ends on an equally anxious, unresolved note with a dark solo guitar piece featuring samples of Fiuczynski’s dog. In a 25-plus year career distinguished by a distinctive, idiosyncratic style and prodigious chops that are equally at home in funk, metal, jazz and Middle Eastern music, most notably with his Moroccan-inspired Kif ensemble, this is the best thing Fiuczynski has ever done. No doubt there’ll more of it.