The notion and spirit of musical collaboration by established artists is such that different parties bring what strengths they have to offer to a given project, and then allow for their own abilities and preconceptions to be stretched -- sometimes to the breaking point -- by the rest of those involved. This is even truer when considering a project that involves improvisation. Restraint, nuance, taste, and openness are all prerequisites. Joint Happening is a shining example of collaboration at its best. San Francisco's Mushroom -- drummer Pat Thomas; bassist Ned Doherty, and keyboardist Matt Henry Cunitz -- have, since 1997 explored the outer reaches of what it means to improvise as well as to compose. Based on their recordings, Mushroom doesn't fit comfortably into jazz, rock, or even "experimental" niches or ghettos. While it's obvious they have been deeply influenced by the early electric recordings of Miles Davis, they have also listened to numerous King Crimson, Hawkwind, and soul-jazz dates to boot. Their recordings -- live and studio -- are steeped in whatever place they happen to find themselves in at any given time. Add to this mix musical iconoclast and innovator Eddie Gale. His two recordings on the Blue Note imprint in the late '60s -- Ghetto Music and Black Rhythm Happening -- were fire brands that moved jazz both free and soul into new territories and remained out of print until 2003 when Water Records issued them on CD. During that time DJs and beat kids sought rare copies out everywhere in dirty hands' dollar bins and flea markets, and whispered about them in near hushed tones. Before that, Gale graced two other landmark recordings as a sideman: Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures and Larry Young's Lawrence of Newark.
What we get when we put these two creative forces together is a long, labyrinthine dream that enters the slipstreams of jazz, rock, groove, and experimental music. The dynamics on this set are controlled carefully, not so much by direction but by acute listening and a distinct respect for the feel and movement of any particular piece. Most of the pieces are long, ranging between seven and 19 minutes. If this sounds a bit like "jamming," it's because it is. Not in the sense where every player has to show what he knows, but in the sense that this group of players, augmented by some other stellar players, like guitarists Tim Plowman and Erik Pearson (the latter also plays saxophone and flute) and percussionists David Brandt and Dave Mihaly (who joined in the fun in various incarnations on these tracks) become something other than the sum of their individual parts. The quiet dreamy textures of "Peace" finds a Mellotron, marimba and bass slowly ushering in a textural dimension that begins to gel as Gale's trumpet enters seamlessly, and a groove presents itself skeletally, smoothly entering the next title, which nods affirmatively in Pete Townshend's direction (though the music doesn't resemble the song this title was taken from in the least) on "I Don't Need to Fight, To Prove I'm Right, I Don't Need to Be Forgiven." The experimentation begins here in earnest with Plowman's guitar filling in the backdrop and a B-3 floating around the edges of the vamp provided by Thomas and Doherty. It's all about rhythm, ultimately, no matter where melodies float, counter one another or engage in transforming themselves into something wholly other. Things threaten to erupt on "I Was Torn Down at the Dance Place -- Shaved Head at the Organ." A dark modal groove commences with Gale playing a repetitive vamp followed by a flute playing in harmonic counterpoint to the rhythm, shimmering hi hat and tom toms. Bells, shakers, and piano enter as the tune begins to emerge from the mist and wind through many phases and stages before becoming a voodoo funk incantation and the various players -- particularly Thomas and Gale -- begin to really get it, pulling at the strands until they're taut before easing back down into the ether. "Our Love" is a nocturnal funky tune, with beautiful keyboard work by Cunitz on B-3, and Pearson's sharp chord voicings becomes a wrangling solo. The album's final cut, "The Spirit," is a rangy ramble into the mystic, while it rarely breaks a sweat, it challenges even rhythmic proprieties in places, moving out of itself and then folding back in, as saxophone, trumpet and guitars interact with myriad percussion to find a way through what may be asserting itself as a melody but is impossible to break down. Which is just fine.
Ultimately, what transpires on Joint Happening feels very expansive while remaining very accessible. There may be great temptations to compare this set to Miles Davis' In a Silent Way, but that would be doing both groups of artists a disservice. Joint Happening stands on its own as a work where simplicity of intent is realized only through the difficult idea of listening carefully to others and serving the work and the band before the individual ego. In other words, in collaborating in this way, Mushroom and Gale become something much larger -- and much more unclassifiable -- than either's catalog would suggest. These pieces are all memorable in their own right, but as a whole they become a complete experience in sound that is unlike virtually anything else out there. In the 21st century, how often does that happen? This is indeed a whole new thing.