26 July 2010

Under the Radar: The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers

Jack DeJohnette featuring Bill Frisell
The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers

When some albums go out of print, I mourn for those who will miss their chance at hearing them. Such is The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers, an exploratory gem from Jack DeJohnette and Bill Frisell. Fulfilling his reputation as an adventurous spirit, DeJohnette masterminds an effort worthy of its own entry at destination: OUT. The album was recorded at the 2001 Earshot Festival in Seattle, with bass lines, effects, ambient sounds, and loops added by DeJohnette and sound engineer Ben Surman in post-production.

The tunes on The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers fall into two categories: grooves and explorations. The title track falls in the former. Leading off the album, Bill Frisell lays down a spooky extended blues over DeJohnette's heavy rhythms. The effects in the background give the tune a darker, more animated mood which really enhances the tune. Frisell and DeJohnette play so well off each other, with one seamlessly filling the gaps left over by the other. The song is followed by Cat and Mouse, a tune in the latter category on which DeJohnette plays various percussion and finger keyboards while Frisell picks some free banjo. It is very outside, I think Frisell plays banjo here the way Don Cherry plays trumpet. It is nonsensical in a way but also very fun to hear. Frisell's playfulness shines through.

Another such sound exploration comes on Cartune Riots. I really can't tell who is doing what on this track, but it sounds like an alternate universe in a Marvin the Martian tune which may or may not give you nightmares and maybe flashbacks. It will turn off many listeners, to be sure, but I appreciate the effort.

One of Frisell's strengths is his sense of melody, which allows him to craft solos full of little ideas from the same harmonic palette. This is evident in Ode to South Africa, the highlight of the disc. Frisell plays about six minutes in F major, but he doesn't repeat himself and doesn't dwell on one motif for more than sixteen measures or so. Under him, DeJohnette demonstrates that the drumset was originally a recreation of an African drum ensemble. He moves from an exploration of the toms into a robust 4-4 groove on ride cymbal and open snare. Frisell's solo builds up to a feeling of euphoria which accompanies a loop of African voices that echo through the final ninety seconds of the tune. Of all the Frisell solo's I've heard, I think this one is my favorite.

The album closes with John Coltrane's After the Rain, and DeJohnette and Frisell accomplish the feat of reworking a Coltrane tune so well that I prefer it to the original (which rarely happens). Switching to piano, DeJohnette augments the melody with some whimsical lines on piano to give the tune a dream-like haze. Combined with Frisell's spare comping, it's the perfect cool-down. Like a post-coital nap, it is a calming restoration of the senses which leaves the listener completely at peace. Serenity now.

Track listing: The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers...; Cat and Mouse; Entranced Androids; The Garden of Chew-Man-Chew; Otherworldly Dervishes; Through the Warphole; Storm Clouds and Mist; Cartune Riots; Ode to South Africa; One Tooth Shuffle; After the Rain
Personnel: Jack DeJohnette: drums, percussion, vocals, piano; Bill Frisell: guitar, banjo; Ben Surman: additional percussion

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