Gareth Davis – Bass Clarinet
Leo Fabriek – Drums
Thomas Cruijsen – Guitar
CD on Gizeh Records, released 4 June 2012
1 – I
2 – II
3 – III
Mere is Gareth Davis, Thomas Cruijsen and Leo Fabriek, a new project that began as a soundtrack and continues as an experimental, dark-ambient jazz group. Guitar, drums and bass clarinet provide an intense and improvised journey into the abyss. The trio first came together to work on a soundtrack for a Dutch TV documentary called Visserman. Having known each other for a while this was the first time they had combined together to write music and the name Mere comes from the Dutch word for ‘more’. Each member adds a different influence to the sound, the modal finger picked guitar playing of Thomas adds a sense of movement while Gareth takes both folk and free jazz ideas to play against Leo’s free rock influenced drum work. The tracks on their eponym album were all recorded in single takes with just a quick discussion of outline and tuning as a basic guide.
In einen Wim Wenders-Film fühlt man sich versetzt beim Hören der Musik von MERE: Eine Wüstenlandschaft samt leergefegter Highways und mit heruntergekommenem Charme kokettierenden Diners, in denen die Bedienungen alle Betty heißen, ersteht bereits bei den ersten Klängen der Ambient-Jazz-Gruppe vor dem inneren Auge. Sofort fällt mir RY COODERs karger Soundtrack zum Roadmovie “Paris, Texas“ ein und die zum Inventar eines popkulturellen Mythos gewordenen amerikanischen Szenerien, die COODER mit seiner Musik so kongenial untermalte. Das Trio MERE, bestehend aus dem Bass-Klarinettisten Gareth Davis, dem Gitarristen Zhomas Cruijsen und dem Drummer Leo Fabriejk kam ursprünglich tatsächlich zusammen, um mit ihren Klängen eine TV-Dokumentation zu begleiten. Dabei entstand die Musik dieses Trio-Debüts unter dem Namen MERE. Viele Einflüsse und großes musikalisches Können machen sich bemerkbar: Jazz und Folk, Ambient und Pop fließen zu einer unaufdringlichen, aber anspruchsvollen Melange zusammen. Damit dürften MERE unter den Liebhabern aller genannten Genres sowie unter jenen von epischen Soundtracks ihre Hörer finden. Es gibt nur einen Kritikpunkt: Die Platte ist viel zu kurz. Die drei in jeder Hinsicht erstklassigen Tracks könnten gerne doppelt so lang sein, ohne dass die geringste Langeweile aufkäme. Bleibt zu hoffen, dass bald ein Album des Trios ansteht.
A closer listen
Over the years, bands like the Mt. Fuji Doomjazz Corporation or Bohren & der Club of Gore have successfully explored the painful abysses that populate the silences of improv, drawing listeners into all sorts of moods mutated by psychological collapse. This ‘noir jazz’ – or ‘darkjazz’, as it’s come to be known – perhaps intends to pervert the joyful communality of jazz improvisation, turning it into a mournful ritual of shared sorrow. It is a celebration of pitch-black gaps and failed utterances, a persecution dream of infinite twists and turns that bleed entrancement. Constantly hinged upon experience, this music is sick with life, with a profusion of mental states that borders on the psychedelic. And yet, the link to meditation, to the ‘spirituality’ of such alchemical processes (a blank film reel that seeps an all-engulfing darkness) is often left untouched. Enter Mere, a collaboration between Gareth Davies, Thomas Cruijsen, and Leo Fabriek, and which seems to emphasize that more meditative, psychedelic aspect of darkjazz in the way the players interact and develop the music.
The three instrument lines flow perfectly, coming ever-so-closer together at every moment, building up into a unity that is mostly averted in other projects of this nature (for the darkness is made into a million moving pieces under the subtle grasp of paranoia), but instead of falling into uniformity, Mere achieves the feeling of a tainted meditation. It is not like an invasion of the senses by the mind, but the focusing of the latter; it is not the opening of a third eye but the cruel emergence of a monstrous sixth, gasping athirst of the void. Unlike the impulse of projecting our most incomprehensible desires upon the world, this music turns the tide inward once again, exploding the mild psychedelics of darkjazz into a fiery hallucination of ourselves, steadily bordering on a repetition (the guitar and drums often pair up into a progressive mantra) that is nonetheless always interrupted by the clarinet’s dazing solos, a voice lost among the graves of thoughts. The mantra, uncanny and disturbing, attunes the body and mind to the vibrations of shadows, flickering and unfathomable, an exercise of oneself as nothingness instead of a connection to the world.
This is perhaps where the difference between Mere and other projects lies: theirs is a collective practice of negation, of improv as Dazu Huike’s bleeding arm presented to the Bodhidharma as resolve, the self-exerted violence of letting imagination take over in a blinding moment of painful fusion. It is maybe not a collective affirmation of the unconscious finally set free, but a drive towards the peace of utter exhaustion, a self-contained subjective death. As listeners, we might be able to glimpse at such a thing, participate indirectly in it, and my only advice would be to play this while asleep, infecting one’s dreams with the possibility of ceasing to be, using one’s own instruments to disappear, to invoke the cleansing non-motion of an emotional catastrophe.
All in all, this is a great album, and surely both the fans and the newcomers to this style will find something interesting to take from it. I wouldn’t call it a game-changing entry in the field, but it’s certainly expanded the possibilities for understanding what can be done with this kind of music, so tending to the sublime as it is. So, this is a great year for darkjazz, and from the sounds of it, there is still much to explore within its strange confines, take it to places it’s only hinted at before with all sorts of new ideas. Here’s to the next album of its kind! (David Murrieta)
Mere’s self-titled release is certainly very different than the prototypical Gizeh recording. Recent albums by FareWell Poetry (Hoping For The Invisible To Ignite), Richard Knox & Frédéric D. Oberland (The Rustle of the Stars), and A-Sun Amissa (Desperate In Her Heavy Sleep) are all very much in the label’s ambient-classical-soundscaping tradition. More to the point, each emphasizes formal composition and a corresponding de-emphasis on free improvisation. Mere’s raison d’etre, by comparison, is improvisation first and foremost, as evidenced by the fact that all three of the album’s tracks were recorded in single takes preceded by shared understandings about outline and tuning.
Bass clarinetist Gareth Davis, guitarist Thomas Cruijsen, and drummer Leo Fabriek first came together to create material for a soundtrack for a Dutch TV documentary titled Visserman, but then decided to continue on as an experimental, jazz-based trio. A scan of Davis’s discography reveals that he’s someone who collaborates often, a recent example being Gramercy, the Miasmah set he created with cellist Frances-Marie Uitti only a short while ago (others he’s worked with include Machinefabriek, Scanner, Ryan Teague, and Elliott Sharp); it’s no surprise, then, that he fits in comfortably within this configuration, though Cruijsen and Fabriek, truth be told, sound no less comfortable.
In keeping with that live improv spirit, the forty-three-minute disc’s three pieces are titled “I,” “II,” and “III,” as if to suggest that all that was needed for the recording’s purposes was to differentiate between the takes in some clear manner. Track times vary, however, with the three checking in at ten, eight, and twenty-five minutes, respectively. The opening piece clearly captures Mere’s improvised approach in showing all three playing freely and responding in the moment to one another, even if the snake-charming lines of Davis’s sinuous playing lead the way before Cruijsen and Fabriek dig in more aggressively as the track progresses. The dynamic pitch of the second is a bit more restrained as the three hew to a lower level of intensity, content to keep the fire under control before the journey’s longest leg is undertaken. It’s the third track where Davis, egged on by the drummer’s oft-explosive accompaniment, really lets loose with repeated flurries of high-pitched squeals and guttural cries. Cruijsen never sits out though at times is felt more subliminally, his playing often textural and atmospheric but in certain moments manic (one episode even finds him resembling a fiddler). The name Mere comes from the Dutch word for ‘more,’ and as such one can’t help but think that the Gestalt principle “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” clearly applies in this case.
Improvisation is a complex matter, and often a contentious one: some degree of musical freedom is usually identified with it, to the extent that freedom is sometimes regarded as its defining characteristic, its essence, or indeed as the thing itself. Thus some more partisan free improvisers would not really regard formulaic improvisation (improvisation within closely bounded harmonic and rhythmic parameters) as improvisation at all. I’ve never had much time for debates that centre on the definitions of musical styles or characteristics, but I guess that if you’ve staked your career and practice on a particular ideology of creative freedom the stakes might look higher than they do to me. Personally I think there are other parameters of improvisation that shed as much light on the variety of activities that can be heard; one such is the ‘subject’ of the music.
Obviously improvisation is an abstract art, and it’s hard to say what its literal subject is, what it might be ‘about’; but I’m not suggesting that it’s representational as such, just that there are aspects of the way it signifies that are analogous to representation. I would suggest that the ‘commonsense’ form of improvisation, the sort that has been practiced in modern (and proto-modern) jazz for around the last eighty-five years, and in the jam-band movement for a smaller (but still considerable) number of decades, is primarily about the performer. The performer is the subject in two senses; the first is that their technical skill is held up for our admiration, and we are offered an aesthetic discourse equivalent to the performance of an acrobat or a contortionist. The surface of the work is presented as decorative, the glyph by which any further meanings are signified being elevated to the point of abstraction, just as a printed glyph might be made so decorative in typographic art that it becomes reluctant to yield its grapheme, and difficult to parse.
The second sense is that the performance is understood to be self-expressive; improvised works are widely conceived as directly equivalent to the inner state of the improvisor at the moment of performance, providing the audience with an opportunity to share in the artist’s affective condition. Clearly there are aspects of a performance, depending on the instrument in use, that are erotically manifest embodiments of the performer, in the same way that song speaks the singer’s body; the growling and slurring of wind instruments, for example, allows artists to evade the semantically measured strictures of simply sequencing pitch. However, the ideological landscape of self-expression extends beyond that territory, and takes the specific affective characteristics of the transcribable melodic materials as an authentic rendition of the improvisor’s spiritual state; it proffers the binary units of musematic signification as fixed relations. This may be an arguable position with regard to music, but those relations are still demonstrably enculturated.
Mere do not reject all this out of hand; they don’t pursue the hardcore atonality and arrhythmia of those free improvisors that seek to elide (or dissemble) their creative agency altogether, but occupy a point somewhere on the continuum between the ‘Body And Soul’ of self-expression and complete abstraction. Free jazz (as opposed to the broader world of free improvisation) was as much (or more) about the performer as be-bop or post-bop were, but this album is certainly not a free jazz recording; nor is it an act of creative sublimation, however. The majority of its soundscapes are primarily concerned with their own topography, but the performers’ musical personalities are vital presences, as the actors on that stage; the human subject is not excised from Mere’s narrative, but shown in flight from itself, seeking transcendence in psychedelic praxis. The ego is not absent, but the music lacks the certainty and semantic fixity that would permit it to dominate; or more to the point, it possesses the maturity and autonomy to embrace ambiguity.
Mere is an improvising trio, composed of Thomas Cruijsen (guitar), Gareth Davis (bass clarinet) and Leo Fabriek (drums); they bring a variety of influences and resonances to this recording, including free jazz, drone (and even the drone metal of some of Earth’s less thunderous recordings), free rock, jam bands, folk musics of various forms. There are usually four voices in play, with extended, grainy tones droning behind the more motile articulations of the instruments I’ve mentioned; had I not seen the personnel written down, I’d have identified these sounds as originating with a bowed double bass or cello, but I would guess they are produced either by the clarinet, a bow (or linear scraping?) applied to the guitar, or some combination of the two, processed and sustained through live looping technology. At times it sounds very much like one or the other, but such impressions are undercut by the frequent simultaneous presence of the same instrument in another mode of operation (although I’m pretty sure the drones in the first half of ‘III’ are all bowed guitar). I could, however, be utterly wrong about all this, and although I’m sure Mere would tell me if I asked, the mystery is part of the music’s pleasure for me.
Cruijsen’s primary (identifiable) technique on guitar is to arpeggiate simple harmonies, and sometimes to strum chords, with his major creative efforts focussed on the parameters of intensity, dynamics and timbre. His work here is perhaps the most self-effacing (a clichéd term which I intend to be taken literally) of all three players; although there are clear creative decisions, and deliberate expressive interventions in his playing, it doesn’t feel as though we are intended to hear his soul stripped bare. Instead of performing discursively, he is more spatial in his approach, deploying his instrument’s capabilities in a measured pursuit of specific affective goals, developing backgrounds and atmospheres that are more about the entirety of the sound than they are about himself as a creative agent. For all that he does not put himself forward in insistent self-portrait, however, it is perhaps Cruijsen’s colours that most dominate the palette presented in these improvisations.
Davis exploits both the wood and the brass of the bass clarinet, moving easily between its sonorous lower register and its more hair-raising upper extremes. He plays with equal commitment in passages of placid introspection and in squawking, honking outbursts of free-jazz firepower. I guess I would identify three main areas of practice, although the distinctions between them are far from clear cut. Near his dynamic minimum, there are extended, keening tones of a primarily atmospheric bent; these merge quite quickly (as they do early in ‘I’) into melodic modal improvisations, that are as evocative as they are beautiful. Time and place are invoked specifically, but not representationally (which would just be corny), and although we begin to sense something of the flow of feeling through Davis’ awareness, his playing seems concerned with ambience, with those parts of his experience that occur outside himself, in which his audience can share. As the intensity of the music increases, so does the subjectivity of Davis’ blowing, the modal and timbral materials of his melodic playing proving inadequate to the task of containing his meanings; both rupture progressively, until at peak moments, tonality collapses, timbre and phrasing de-stabilising in its wake. This tendency is accompanied by a movement from the lower to the upper register, as though from earth to self, from commonality to a more isolated affective position.
Fabriek is clearly more influenced by rock than jazz in his approach to orchestration, preferring his toms to his cymbals for purposes of both timekeeping and dramaturgy. His phrasing also seems to be more about developing and compounding a single rhythmic idea than the less grounded, polyrhythmic approach common in jazz; his is an earthy style of drumming, with a primordial appeal of the sort conventionally associated with the word ‘tribal’ (although it is only certain specific tribes in particular historical-geographic locations that practice the sort of trance-like cyclical percussion that we generally mean by that). Fabriek plays time throughout, and it is always quite easy to feel where the One is, but he rarely plays anything that sounds like a beat; he doesn’t deliver sequenced combinations like a boxer, and his sound does not insist on the defensive bodily reaction that beats demand. Instead he establishes nuanced affective landscapes, working closely with the guitar, and perhaps benefitting in this from the absence of a bass instrument. His dynamic control is pronounced, and leads the trio in the long form development of its improvisations; the textural parameters offered by the choice of whether or not to use snare and cymbals are exploited with great intelligence, and very much independently of questions of overall amplitude. Like both of his collaborators, Fabriek seems as much concerned with space and atmosphere as he is with self, but he lets rip with some passion when Davis begins to screech.
The dynamic maxima that Mere attain in these three pieces are relatively restrained; peaks of intensity are peaks of activity, time becoming saturated with events, and the interactions of the improvisers becoming freighted with an increasing emotional burden; the volume increases, but its range from top to bottom is never extreme. The gradient over which intensity is varied is often extremely shallow overall; in ‘I’ it is more or less a continual straight line of development from start to finish, which requires a remarkable degree of control and a precisely calibrated ear. Especially with three musicians working together, it would be easy to build the dynamic at too rapid a pace, or at an inconsistent rate, and although musicianship is much in evidence throughout this album, this, for me, is its greatest technical achievement. ‘III’, the longest piece by some considerable margin, makes it clear that this is the band’s main compositional parameter, ebbing and flowing through repeated dynamic valleys, like a slow sine wave.
A further clue as to the relative importance of Mere’s creative concerns is to be found in the lack of variation in the traditional receptacles of musical meaning. In terms of key centre and modality, there is very little distance between one piece and the next, or within pieces, from beginning to end. The modalities are able to flex enough to accommodate a certain eastern- or central-European aroma, but they are essentially natural minor modes, of the sort that inform much rock and folk music. There is no sense of harmonic progression whatsoever; the point of the music clearly lies in what the three players do within these self-imposed limitations. Paradoxically, there is a great deal of freedom in a restricted palette, because it becomes unnecessary to expend creative effort on the choice of colour, leaving the artist at liberty to explore other aspects of their practice.
The expressive character of Mere is, on the whole, pretty dark. It’s a music of grainy sonorities and plangent melodies, that pursue a dramatic arc without ever seeming to move any further towards, or away from, the light. Instead, the melancholy twilight inhabited by the music accommodates both quiet contemplation and passionate intensity; as it builds and develops it becomes immensely powerful, but it retains a consistent distance from the lucidity of daylight. This is an unseen music, with a mysterious, crepuscular soul; it makes no effort to obscure its meanings, but yields them slowly, revealing its forms only as rapidly as the listener’s metaphorical eyes can become accustomed to its gloom. The aurality of this recording is a tissue of ritual and trance, and its meanings are only to be apprehended by feeling them, not by interrogating its surface. It is, furthermore, a music of place; it is not concerned with a place in particular, and it would be hard to pin down in so literal a manner, but it has a spatial sense throughout, a concern with ambience that is enveloping, and that locates the specific phraseologies of the performers in a shared context as exacting and coherent as the thirty-two bar chord sequence of a jazz standard. That Mere are able to achieve such concord without recourse to an externally sourced model is a tribute to their commitment to improvisation, and to their mutual creative regard. Freedom to improvise is not necessarily the same thing as free improvisation, but in both cases the freedom is far more of a challenge than it is a liberation; to hear three highly aware musicians grappling with that challenge is thought-provoking, moving, challenging in itself, and deeply rewarding.
Mere’s debut album is a beauty, and it also has the added, wonderful, benefit of allowing this lucky scribe the chance to talk rapturously about a lost gem of 70s rock: A Meditation Mass by mostly-forgotten kosmische band Yatha Sidhra. For Mere taps straight into the same vein of mystical, transcendent, typical psychedelic rock that Yatha Sidhra, perhaps more than any other band of their day bar Ash Ra Tempel, encapsulated most perfectly. It’s just such a shame they only released one album.
Luckily, somehow (for I do not know how aware they are of their German forebears), Mere, a trio formed of Gareth Davis, Thomas Cruijsen and Leo Fabriek, channels exactly the same essence of elegant, considered psychedelia, albeit while also filtering Yatha Sidhra’s dreamy, definitely hippy, attitude through the subsequent forty-odd years’ worth of modern rock/fusion history. A Meditation Mass was built on the interaction between rock and jazz-based rhythm, “progressive” song structures and use of synths, and the flights of fancy conjured up by flute and other woodwinds. With Mere, this is mirrored as Gareth Davis’ bass clarinet becomes a sophisticated, eloquent counterpoint to the brittle guitar and drum interplay of Cruijsen and Fabriek, its fluid, loping jazz notes slaloming between precise polyrhythms and brittle arpeggios on electric guitar. Initially calm, with a pace akin to the most leisurely of Soft Machine pieces, as the track gathers pace the interplay between all three becomes more precarious, but paradoxically more elaborate, the notes scattered around by Cruijsen being picked up and propelled skywards by Fabriek’s measured percussive drives, while Davis peppers the spaces in-between with increasingly strident, almost free-jazz squalls and screams. The resemblance to Yatha Sidhra (and even, at the track’s most enervated moments, to Ash Ra Tempel), hits its apex as the track gallops to a close, and you may find yourself reaching for the Rizlas and wacky baccie just to enhance the wildness of the experience.
And wild is a good word for the music of Mere, despite my comparisons to the more leisurely Yatha Sidhra. It’s more that the Germans’ folky-psych approach to fusion is used by the current trio as a solid base from which to launch themselves into more daunting, and vigorous, territory. This considered modernisation of the kosmische sound sees the trio toying with avant-garde noises and free improv on ‘II’, while the third piece is a twenty-minute romp that picks the basis of ‘I’ up and builds it into a rampaging jam, on which, after another quiet, gradual build-up, Gareth Davis unleashes a tornado of rambunctious power notes whilst Cruijsen rips at the strings on his guitar and Leo Fabriek goes all early Klaus Schulze on us with a thundering of the toms that sounds like a genius octopus using all eight legs to maximum effect.
Like many a German band of the early 70s, Mere have even gone for this side-long jam. In an age where looking back into the past has become the norm, to the point where even new age is deemed suitable mining material, such a clear stylistic and conceptual nod to kosmische does not seem as “retro” as it might have done a few years ago, especially as Fabriek, Cruijsen and Davis are so adept and sliding different textures into their trippy sonic tapestry. Equally, to use a football cliche, class is very much permanent. Yatha Sidhra were of their time and out of it all at once, which is what made their album so enduringly interesting. Same goes for Ash Ra Tempel, Sergius Golowin and the first Tangerine Dream album, all of which have echoes in Mere’s oddball slab of mood-driven jazz-rock. These three guys are in good company, regardless of the separating decades, and I am ready to bet that Mere will long hold the same timeless appeal.