Tuesday, October 4, 2016
Jeff Guthery's Black Paintings on CD
At some point during your first listen to Jeff Guthery's Black Paintings, you'll ask yourself "What kind of album is this?" You won't ask what type of music it is, because you'll get that answer one track at a time--full orchestral music, free jazz, string quartet, world music and wait, was that an electric guitar solo I just heard? If anything, Black Paintings almost resembles a soundtrack album for a movie--you get the main orchestral score with frequent leaps into different genres. But these nine tracks are meant to work together as a whole, not as some cobbled-together background narrative.
This shape-shifter of an album, composed by percussionist Guthery, is designed as a soundtrack of sorts--each piece is influenced by one of Francisco Goya's Black Paintings. These 14 works, painted on the walls of a villa in Madrid, were the result of Goya's extreme paranoia after chronic illness, deafness, war, the death of his wife and finally his "falling out of favor" with the Spanish monarchy. In other words, these are portraits of madness. Goya never spoke of these paintings, completed just before the end of the 18th century, since they were completed in a private residence. The existence of the Black Paintings was not discovered by the public for 50 years, and their first public exhibition--they were lifted to canvas by the owner of the villa--did not occur until 1878.
Each image is provided in the packaging of this CD so you'll be able to match the black painting to the track. It's a heady endeavor since these clearly are the jagged works of madness and the images are unduly haunting, the stuff of nightmares. The musical accents from Guthery are sometimes equally jarring--as a percussionist he is big on sudden strikes of bells, the tympany, horns and the like. The opening piece, Goat, sounds like an outtake from the classic Shaded Dog Witches' Brew, all scary and perfect for the upcoming Halloween festivities. Just as you're settled in for some spooky holiday fun, however, you get an epic free jazz freakout in the form of the next track, Saturn, and I will worn you that the corresponding painting is easily the most disturbing one. (I'll just say someone's getting eaten.)
As you might guess, Black Paintings isn't made for casual listening. I had it playing in the background for the first couple of listens and found it distracting, schizophrenic and uneven. At the same time I found the sound quality to be dynamically forceful and extremely impressive. I was particularly intrigued with the wide open soundstaging that allowed for effortless transitions between the full power of the East Coast Scoring Orchestra and the jazz quartet improvisations (performed by pianist Kenny Werner, saxophonist George Garzone, bassist Bruno Raberg and Guthery on drums). In many ways this is an outstanding demo disc as long as you stick with the orchestra pieces and beware of the sustained chaos of the free jazz.
What's ultimately so fascinating about this album is on Guthery's noble attempt to translate "a distinct set of visual art into aural art." I've made a couple of passing references to the language of film, and this is a deliberate goal for Guthery. The liner notes mention that "The music is majestically cinematic(...)the camera closing in tightly, pulling back, panning, fading and cutting in its imagery." So studying the included material and reviewing the history brings an uncommon depth to this album, and added appreciation.