The ubiquitous multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine gives us three CDs' worth of recordings from two nights of concerts in 1998 at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN. Fine's music is always self-indulgent, and almost always pretentious. That said, depending on the people he's playing with -- in this case the settings are trios and quartets -- he can either dazzle the imagination or bore one to tears with equal aplomb. Thankfully, most of the material on the Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble's Surges/Suspensions, Comme Toujours, falls into the former category. Forgoing his usual fury-in-a-teacup beginning, the improvisations here are built from stark elements and miniscule tonal clusters. The sonorities that surrey forth become the building blocks of horizontal rather than vertical ideas, making for a wider, non-hierarchical sonic palette to extract a communicable language from.
It would be deplorable in this case to go through individual cuts, since none of them have names or numbers, just the initials of who played between each separation on the disc. But given the colors available, it should be noted that guitarist Steve Gnitka; tenor sax and woodwind man Scott Newell; trumpeter John O'Brien; pianist and synthesist Jason Shapiro; and percussionist Elliot Fine; join Fine -- on his usual array of pianos, marimbas, electronics, and clarinets -- for a ride into the dark night of the stage. What begins to transpire -- on record at least; since these performances are edited there is no way to tell what really happened -- is a kind of paradigmatic metalanguage that musically validates itself as it gets more intricate, more abstract, and further away from a definable center.
The plops, blips, growls, whispers, sniggers, and snorts from the various instruments do come together; not as some precocious, self-indulgent, private joke, but as a multivalent utterance where ideas are given the same weight as their execution. Timbral syntax is created breath-by-breath, note-by-note, as embouchures shift, wax, wane, and ultimately disappear into the next stream of music.
The microtonal aesthetic pursued by Fine and his compadres here is one rooted deeply in Joe Maneri's pantheon of sonic images, and in particular, his axiom that no musical shape or image can be fixed: so why try? Why not attempt to root sound in itself and let the outside world -- particularly the genres in which music gets defined, like "jazz" or "avant-garde" -- come calling and determine the image or images. Structure them in an ever-present future where what may come to pass already has and then use whatever force necessary to put that across. There aren't scalar or intervalic inventions in Fine's music on these three CDs (much less notions of melody or conventional harmony based on the pentatonic scale).
Moods and tempos change often; dynamics are crucial to Fine's symbolic environment, so drama is dictated by necessity. Since all players are involved in the act of improvisation, there isn't room in this meta-linguistic practice -- where music refers to itself purely -- for soloing. Each member works harder at the art of listening than speaking, allowing fury or joy to waft through as a reaction to what the others are playing rather than as an assertion of individuality. This is clearly Fine's strong point, to coax the individuality out of his player's voices and into a single unit where they've all but consciously abandoned their individuality in order to play in the ensemble. It's almost like magic. As a construct it all reads like art damage, but as an auditory experience it's remarkable. There are momentous flights of fancy where three or four instruments twirl and wind around each other so they become inextricably linked by a harmonic magnet. In other places, the semi-quavers stack up in such a way -- particularly on disc two -- that swing is approximated and jazz rears its gorgeous head for a prolonged experience before circular, breathing saxophones and bleating clarinets are lifted by a stuttering, beaten piano and the music shifts, once again, into the world of tone, shape, color, and texture.
In all, Fine has, for the first time, delivered a collection of music on CD that is as varied and as deep as his live act is. Despite the irritating edits on discs one and three -- which are phased out at their apexes almost as a tease (for half-an-hour each!) -- what transpires in the trio and quartet settings is powerful and frighteningly ambiguous. What this means is simple: Music can become so abstract it no longer resembles itself; then one of two things must have happened somewhere along the way in Western civilization: one is that we have never properly considered the vastness of its linguistic possibilities, and two is that music has ceased being a boundaried art.