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"Imagine Cassandra Wilson on acid and you're on the right track." ( Deni Kasrel--Jazz Times )

Vocalist Bonnie Barnett's new disc on Jeff Kaiser's pfMENTUM label, In Between Dreams, released last month, is a startling example of how the voice can be used in free jazz contexts as an independent, virtuosic soloing instrument.

Barnett has been around the LA free scene for many years, and has worked with the heavy hitters, including multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia, who called her "one of Los Angeles' hidden treasures."

She has surrounded herself with deep company: on alto sax, flute and bass clarinet- Richard Wood, who teamed up with the masterful bass of Hal Onserud on his own recent pfMENTUM release, Not Far From Here around the same time as this was recorded. Barnett's choice for the drum chair is the remarkable Bay Area percussionist Garth Powell. Between them, Onserud and Powell have worked with pianist Cecil Taylor, guitar icon Nels Cline and trumpeter Bill Dixon, among many others.

This disc requires special attention. It's not "background" music, or casual listening by any measure. But, if you do listen carefully--you'll reap the rewards--because there isn't anyone else doing anything remotely similar in improvised music today.

Beginning with "Badinase", over the free growling flute of Wood, the bell-ringing and duck calling of Powell, Barnett sings/ speaks in a language of her own design. At times, she hoots, yelps and gargles her way into strange lines that zig-zag around the chaotic interplay of her associates. Gradually, Onserud's bass comes sawing in, and Wood switches to alto and unloads with an intense caterwaul that never manages to ruffle the feathers of Barnett. Once you get past the weirdness of hearing a singer improvising in this context, Barnett's approach becomes mesmerizing. Her deep contralto is as rich as Warren Buffet and three times as agile.

"In Between Dreams," kind of floats along on a dreamy flute-led rubato, offset by Powell's extremely creative cymbal washes and tinckling bells. As Wood fires up the alto, Onserud's pizzicato bass ratchets up the tension until it explodes with the singer's sputtering wordless improvisations.

"Matisse" begins with an orgiastic instrumental free-for-all, over which Barnett calmly intones the impossibly wordy and confusing text by Gertrude Stein which repeats and slowly alters many of the same words in an ever evolving collage of layered ideas.

They follow a similar tactic on "Nothingness," (text by Jean-Paul Sartre) except for the fact that the text itself is much more straightforward. Barnett's recitation is lush and implacable, which is amazing, given the degree of chaos bubbling behind her--Onserud's mad bowing, the keening bass-clarinet of Woods, and the tension of Powell's tic-tocking arsenal of percussive effects.

Her singing, no matter how unusual the manipulations become, is always clear, calm and on pitch. Likewise her narration clearly benefits from her weekly radio show "Trilogy," on KXLU. She could read the phone-book and make a story out of it.

Barnett has mastered a gaggle of "extended-techniques," and she can definitely hang with the best of them when it comes to "taking-it-out."

Find In Between Dreams by visiting pfmentum.com

Image of Bonnie Barnett from ninewinds.com

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