by carl wilson

Damolition Squad: The Pickup Band Tour


In case you didn't notice it down in the "top shows" list in the sidebar, Damo Suzuki (ex-Can) will be playing Toronto this weekend, presenting more of his "instant composing" - unrehearsed sets backed by local musicians, whose participation brings them into the Damo Suzuki Network. He does the same tomorrow (Wed.) evening in Montreal, as the above Seripop poster proclaims, and Thursday in Ottawa and Friday in Hamilton, Ont.

It strikes me that his methodology has been borrowed by Jandek, who will be backed by local improvisors Nick Fraser, Nilan Perrera and Rob Clutton in his upcoming Toronto concert. Ariel Pink also attempted the trick earlier this year, albeit with less success because he was asking the musicians to learn his whole set in advance, rather than to wing it. (Anyone see a show where he pulled it off?) And Shiu-Yeung Hui (sometime member of Maher Shalal Hash Baz) pursues similar techniques in his gig tonight at Graffiti's, to which he invites even the audience members to bring instruments and play along. (If you can't make it tonight he's back next week at the Poor Pilgrim series.)

It's a touring model that's relatively common in jazz, of course - a pianist or singer or trumpet player drops into the city and picks up a rhythm section for the duration. You also find it in bluegrass and other forms where there's a set of standards all professional musicians would know. And improvisors in the usual (jazz-derived) sense likewise can play with anyone, as can noise musicians etc. But a pickup-band-tour also comes with many advantages for the adventurous musician who toils in the towers of song: You may not be trying to bring world unity one band at a time the way Damo is, but the economics and creative dynamics are hard to beat. And by accepting the deviations and warpings that a song - or set of song-fragments, as Suzuki uses - will undergo when entered into the atom smasher of improvisation, you present to the audience the possibility that the boundaries of song need not be so rigid as we assume. In fact you generate a kind of spontaneous folk-culture, not only among the musicians who are participating in a hypercompressed version of the oral tradition, but among the audience, who are receiving material that is in some sense indigenous to that specific time, that specific gathering, in that specific room, temporary though it is. Ephemeral folkways. Mobile mother tongues.

I'd be fascinated to see it become more common. You don't have to go on tour to do it, of course. You could do a pickup-band tour of your own town just by calling in different players at each gig. (We could get off here into a discussion of conducted improv too, but another time.)

On the other hand, you have to try to assert the boundaries between "spontaneous composition" (or "instant songs," as I've heard them called), improvisation and jamming. And the latter should be ruled out unequivocally, in the long campaign to wipe jamming off the face of the earth like polio. (What's that you say? Feh. I contain multitudes, etc etc.)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, August 22 at 6:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)



Having taken part in every stop on the continuum from 'spontaneous composition' to stoned jamming, your post got me thinking about the distinction between these things. It seems to me that Ariel Pink's approach as you describe it stands outside the gamut, and fits better with the Chuck Berry pickup band approach - "You fellas know these songs!". I played with a guitar player/singer once who indicated chord changes - I, IV etc by pointing his guitar neck in different directions. Conducted improvisation?
In thinking about the continuum, I first theorized that the difference between 'blues in A' and 'total free improvisation' could be seen in terms of the breadth of available musical material - blues in A connotes a single tonality and some well-worn motives, while free playing potentially allows for any sound, musical or extramusical. But in practice, most of the totally free improvisation that I've witnessed worked from an equally limited set of options, most of which were dissonant or noisy and sidestepped tonality and established phrase forms altogether. I myself have tried to facilitate tonal free group improvisation myself, and then heard from band members that the result sounded too "Grateful Dead" for their liking.
The quest continues, I guess.

Posted by Mike Daley on August 23, 2006 7:10 AM



Yer missin the joke there a bit, Mr. Bauhaus.

Posted by zoilus on August 23, 2006 2:12 AM



sorry i'm not sold on your distinction between the futurist nostalgia for the hypercompressed "folkways" and the "jamming" culture which you despise. listening to tago mago tonight sounded like sublime takes on the stoned "jam" culture you liken to the plague. it seems more like journalistic penchants for unnecessary musical descriptors.


Posted by peter murph y on August 23, 2006 2:00 AM



Do I sense a book proposal on String Cheese Incident coming on?

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

I like your idea of pick-up tours.

For a short time after I moved to Seattle, friends of mine in Chicago owned a club. My old friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey was living in New York, and we arranged to meet in Chicago on our way to visiting our respective parents in Michigan for our summer vacations, and I booked a gig at my friends' club. Jay and I had played together since junior high, but he didn't know my new songs. He learned lead guitar parts and harmony vocals for a dozen songs in a 90-minute rehearsal. It was a blast.

Posted by john on August 22, 2006 11:10 PM



I heard that Chuck Berry uses a local pickup band in every town, or at least did at one point.

Also, the Ariel Pink live set in Montreal was pretty great. His stuff doesn't lend itself too well to improvisation, though; the musicians had just learned the songs well.

Posted by malstain on August 22, 2006 7:18 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson