Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Michael William Gilbert's Radio Omnibus

Once in a while I get an album from one of my contemporary jazz contacts that isn't quite, well, jazz. That brings up the old brain twister about the definition of jazz, of course, and I have learned that all sorts of sounds can be informed by jazz without sounding like it. I actually welcome these releases because they tighten the focus I have on the idea of a musical genre. And if you love music, you know that the music that refuses to be pigeon-holed is usually the most fascinating and illuminating kind.

Michael William Gilbert's Radio Omnibus is certainly one of those creations. You can hear jazz in it of course, deep in its core, beneath the cracked foundations. Gilbert is not the typical jazz composer--he grew up in Connecticut and Belgium and gravitated toward the music of Varese, Stockhausen and Pierre Henry and placed it within a context of world music he heard from Japan, India and Africa. He went from studying electrical engineering to electronic music, and he settled in on a career in the design and teaching of synthesis systems. That's why his compositions are firmly within the realm of electronica, with one subtle difference--he strives to make that music more "human" by adding percussion, wooden flutes and voices. That's where the jazz comes in.

If I wanted to perform the rather useless practice of coming up with musical hybridization to describe the work here, I would call it a cross between electronica, perhaps trip-hop, and fusion jazz. I'm not sure that would do justice to these compelling songs. This isn't a unique countenance, and you might find a lot of it familiar. Here the magic is in the elusive whole, of purposing a lot of synthesizer noises and tones into something with a funky beat, something that uses fusion jazz as a touchstone before heading for the outer reaches of space. Just to mix it all up, Gilbert includes two acoustic chamber compositions that peel back a few layers from what's really happening deep inside this music. Oh, and he evens throws in some "multi-cultural" folk such as "Night Walk," which contains the flute, bassoon, vibraphone and a string orchestra. It comes from out of the blue.

If that sounds a tad too exotic, it's not. This is music that's extraordinarily likeable in its beauty, weirdly delicate in a way that's not off-putting, original in the way the seams are obscured. It sounds fantastic, with deep synthesizer bass smashing through the floorboards, and dozens of layers of mechanical drones and swirling highs that set up a huge space for Gilbert's ideas. My first impression, of course, was "This isn't jazz," but I sat still for the duration, bathing in a hypnotic soundscape that prompted my mind to wander and entertain a host of new ideas. If you're into electronica (I am) or fusion jazz (eh, not so much), you will find common ground here. Highly recommended.

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