Altered States

Lithuania and Estonia Live

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Japanese improvisational power trio Altered States -- along with turntablist/guitarist Otomo Yoshihide -- stormed through the Baltic republics of Lithuania and Estonia in October 1993, and this CD documents the sonic shredding that ensued. The foursome wails away on rock-based jams that flow organically, constrict into tight and chunky rhythms, and sometimes stop in a millisecond, leaving one to wonder how long a few of these improvisations had been rehearsed beforehand. (Given the aimlessness of much rock improvisation, that's not intended as a criticism.) Guitarist Uchihashi Kazuhisa, bassist Nasuno Mitsuru, and drummer Yoshigaki Yasuhiro are often relentless, locking into propulsive rhythms that push along at a manic pace, but the open-eared improvisations are indeed the most amazing parts of Lithuania and Estonia Live, as the musicians anticipate one another's moves and react in a flash to whatever ideas might be tossed into the mix. And plenty of ideas are tossed in, particularly with Yoshihide and Kazuhisa sharing the front line. As for Yoshihide, although his work would become far more minimal in subsequent years, the turntablism practiced here features musique concrète experimentation while also possessing the swagger and pyrotechnic spirit of a rock guitar god. As Altered States churns out a pounding accompaniment, Yoshihide is in full-throttle mode, and his contributions sound like skittering violin lines, mutated free jazz saxophone solos, the high-pitched clarion call of an unidentified horn, fevered individual and group political chants, and other mysterious vocalizations. (Given the language barrier, few Westerners would fully understand the plundered vocals and chants, but they remain powerful and startlingly appropriate to the music on the basis of their sonic properties alone.) Recorded by Estonian radio on October 6, "Motif B" and "Chain Reaction" are concise and well-recorded avant rockers that get the CD off to a high-energy start. The album then moves into a handful of the previously referenced improvisations, recorded with a somewhat rougher sound quality during the band's appearance at the Tallinn International Festival the following day. The musicians are clearly at the top of their game as they experiment with new approaches and place earlier elements in new contexts (for example, "Motif B" reappears as the entry point for "Improvisation #3"). The eighth track melds performances from Tallinn on October 7 and the Vilnius Jazz Festival on October 9 into a single piece; Yoshihide's recordings of chants and singing unify two segments that otherwise stand in stark contrast: a lengthy near-ambient sound collage and a brief rolling up-tempo unison vamp. Clocking in at over 15 minutes in length, the ambitious final track, "Lithuania Mix," is a stunning blend of avant jazz-rock, improvisation, and turntablism. Here, the musicians appear to have taken the jazz festival surroundings of their Vilnius gig to heart, although of course with a completely skewed approach. Yoshihide reaches into his grab-bag of discs and finds some particularly apropos gems, transforming an apparent solo saxophone recording into a mutant free jazz escapade and spinning a big-band platter as the proceedings draw to a close. Of course, this adheres to the tradition of jazz artists quoting standards in their solos, which Yoshihide just took a step further: He didn't only recontextualize melodies in new bop settings, but tossed entire LPs -- music, instruments played, musicians who played them, and even album surface scratches -- into Altered States' maelstrom of sounds. This stuff would likely cause audience members at a typical U.S. jazz fest to rush pellmell for the exits, hollering about travesties, heresies, and how this couldn't possibly be jazz. So here is a CD that documents not only some great performances by four of Japan's top avant improvisers, but also the sense of open-mindedness at music festivals in a pair of tiny Baltic nations. One airline ticket to Vilnius, please.

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