El-P's entry into Thirsty Ear's Matthew Shipp-curated Blue Series is a compelling experiment in genre and sound collision. El-P doesn't rap on this set, nor does he saturate his mix with a truckload of effects. His compositions are skeletal frames on which to hang his mixological architecture of ambitious beats and skeletal samples, creating a tightly controlled dynamic inside which ambitious music is created. His collaborators are pianist Shipp, bassist William Parker, drummer Guillermo E. Brown, and a horn section comprised of Daniel Carter on reeds and flute, Steve Swell on trombone, and trumpet prodigy Roy Campbell. While many titles in the Blue Series catalog seem to be varied in terms of texture and dynamic, High Water is not. This feels like a conscious decision on the part of El-P. The palette is restricted atmospherically; his compositions are almost song-oriented -- at least in the beginning. The funky breaks on "Get Your Hand Off My Shoulder, Pig" offer a glance into the depths of his aesthetic: the grooves are midtempo with Shipp delving into his blues and soul book for vamps and a solo, Parker laying underneath and propelling the cadence and the horns floating over the top of those massive beats. Shipp is the first to meander, decentering the melody, pulling it apart phrase by phrase and then turning it inside out. All the while the horns shift harmonics while keeping the timbre and tension in clear view. On "Get Modal," the pop tune "Where Is the Love" becomes the jump-off place for investigation. Parker kicks its phrasing first before Shipp chimes in and confirms it. The skittering beats make the track feel like it is coming off a Tilt-a-Whirl, and a forgotten soul vocal is tossed into the background to rattle around just behind the horns. Meanwhile, Brown's counterpoint polyrhythms accent El-P's foreground sampling -- including a looped guitar riff from the ether -- and all of it is capped with brief yet tough solo from Campbell.
The crackling strangeness in "Intrigue in the House of India" is indicative of the album's moodiness and rhythmic parlance. Shipp's carnival-inspired Afro-Cuban son riff opens out onto a carousel of sonic layering -- Carter's flute solo is the only thing that feels as if it were recorded on Planet Earth and Brown's weaving in and out of the synthetic rhythms keeps everything shimmering, skipping along into a void where entropy and suffocation would be the only choices were it not for Campbell once again cutting through the detritus and creating a melodic center. At about three minutes and 15 seconds into the track, the cut breaks open with big beats, Parker's cutting drone bass, and ambient sonics paring their way into the heart of the rhythmic soundscape. The theme that threads through the album is a complete reconsideration and rewiring of Charles Aznavour's "Yesterday When I Was Young." It is quoted at the beginning as the players get ready, in a faltering, stuttering, tentative attempt to encounter the subtleties at work in the tune's harmonic palette -- like the mood of the disc, it too is consciously restricted. When they get to its full articulation on "When the Moon Was Blue" with Harry Keys singing, the beats seem to separate from his voice, which invokes not only the ghost of Aznavour and his theatrical phrasing but also Louis Armstrong's with his underappreciated sense of melancholy. As horns offer droning bell-like lines across the entire top of the tune, El-P's beats pop under the vocal and Shipp and Parker wander the rounded edges of the melody's margin, a step away from complete implosion. Brown jumps through hoops and keeps the entire band -- mostly -- inside not only the time, but the tight lyrical consideration that makes up the body of the tune. In sum, it's a moody and haunting record with a few highs, a few lows, and lots of shades of blue to make your way through. Recommended.