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CD Feature/ Rent Romus: "Grid"; "You Can Sleep..."; "Prismatic Season"; "Thundershine"; "Slap"

img  Tobias

Rent Romus can get worked up about a lot of things: Politics („If you are conservative of any type just click away“, one of his recent blog entries opened), pecuniar compensation for performers (which he considers supplying a vital and indespensible „service“ rather than an „entertainment“ utility) and the inflational use of the term „experimental“ in music („It seems like its the 'new thing' to call every little change in music experimental“). Which might lead some people to believe that he must be an angry man. In fact, quite the opposite is true: Underneath his sometimes strident vocabulary beats the hungry heart of an honest man who still believes that there exist both artistic and social values worth fighting for. And who has dedicated his life to contributing to the cause.

Last year, I had the pleasure and privilege of recording an album with Romus which would later be released as „Grid“ under the Ministry of Rites moniker. Prior to approaching him about a collaboration, I had prepared some long, dark and moody soundscapes, which included the occasional rhythmic suggestion and a lot of field recordings. In line with what I'd previously heard from him, I was expecting my potential musical partner to contribute Saxophone lines and perhaps one or two Flute adornments. But as it turned out, he was eager to enrich my drones with samples and synthetic textures as well – which resulted in a record so stunningly different from anything I'd originally imagined it could be that still today it rather sounds like an in-the-moment live-recording to me than a studio cut. His infinitely curious personality, a diverse musical taste and frequent collaborations with colleagues from the San Francisco area's improvisational scene like CJ Borosque have turned Romus into a veritable sonic explorer who holds just as much interest in Albert Ayler and Eric Dolphy as in the mangled distortions of Merzbow.

The most remarkable thing, then, for someone as open towards the integration of electronics into Jazz and Improvisation is for him to only make carefully administered use of them when blowing his horn. As the sonic thunderstorm discharges itself around him on the most recent full-length with his Lords of Outland combo („You can sleep when you're Dead“), Romus will once or twice feed his Sax through a Delay pedal or discreetly add some Reverb. For almost the entire duration of this challenging and dramatic disc, hower, he relies on the power of his breath alone. And truth be told, it is making his performance all the more intense: Regardless of whether he's touching upon apocalyptic soundtrack-work („Dark Wanderer“), indulging in microtonal deep-listening-inspired Sound Art („More water kills for the money“) or duelling with tweetering frequencies and a set of steak-knives („How to be a good citizen in 3 easy steps“), his voice is as identifiable as it is eclectic.

The reason why Romus doesn't need expensive gear to sound great is because he has concentrated in an almost classical fashion on the two factors which have traditionally come to define an instrumentalist: Tone and thematic inventiveness. Especially in the uptempo-pieces, his sound is that of a musical alpha-male: Masculin, reckless, explosive and focussed like an energy-packed laser beam. In the softer moments, on the other hand, he displays an equal ability of getting all poetic, rich and creamy. His motivic style can be described as an in-your-face combination of overflowing melodic creativity and a strikingly angular rhythmic catchyness.  As much as he loves letting go of all pre-conceived notions and confusing expectations, however, („Ripping apart the normal construct, taking from all music and throwing it out there“ is how he describes his approach himself), 'control' and 'direction' are important words in his vocabulary, because it is only through them that freedom can truly attain a flow.

Where others have come to rely on standardised licks, Romus follows down his lines to wherever they may lead him. And contrary to the tendency of regarding the Saxophone rather as a sound-producing entity than an instrument in the traditional sense, so-called extended techniques hardly play a role in his world. On „Prismatic Season“ (recorded live with the Bloom Project-constellation of Jon Brumit and Thollem McDonas at Krannert Art Museum), some percussive plopps make their appearance here and there, but once he has settled into the groove, Romus irrevokably takes the lead on the strength of his melody-spouting fountain alone. Thanks to this insistance and the seamless communication with his partners (McDonas especially is reacting to his cues with instantaneous precision), the album has turned out a perfect representation of the full range of his interests and talents. Fulminant Snare Drum shuffles are counterpointed by fluent Tenor stratagems and concise sonic supernovas take turns with slowly simmering hotpots of atonal Piano runs and pointed Percussion. On the last track, Steven Baker produces a quarter-of-an-hour long sustained sonic ripple from a chalice – an enigmatically meditative ending to an album which is otherwhise marked by brutal transparency and a wide range of dynamics.

While „Prismatic Season“ displays an apparent affinity for contemporary composition (even though, of course, „composed music is just someone elses improvisation“ as one of Romus' bonmots goes), the reissue of „Thundershine“ takes one back to 1992, when Romus was still operating firmly within the Jazz idiom with his Jazz On The Line outfit. His personal hero Chico Freeman guests on Tenor and Soprano, the sound is tight, lively and organic (down to the fact that this is, in fact, a concert recording). All band members save Bassist Ravi Abcarian contribute pieces of their own to the set: Jason Olaine's „Cameltrott“ trods through Latin-infused, Piano-powered, uptempo passages and silky sections of nocturnal reflection while Freeman's almost ethereal „Q'Cee“ blends dreamy Flute and breathy Sax into a track with strong soundscape connotations.

Both in its most minimal moments (Stefano deZerega's exercise in gradual concretion on the title track) and its most exultant group efforts (such as Drummer Bein Leinbach's impulsive „Moons of Neptune“), the album relies on the effortless propulsion of a band at its peak. Romus, meanwhile, is in full flight on his own composition „Dali Lawnd“ - even more so on the added bonus cut of the same piece on which he spins and loops himself and his audience into ecstacy. „Thundershine“ is a record which instantly feels familiar and yet, thanks to its elastic grooves and refreshing solos, offers plenty of reasons to return to it again and again.  It is not hard to imagine what this album could have done commercially and critically had it been „properly released to the public“ at its time. Now finally available again, it demonstrates that even though Romus may have changed the artistic and stylistic environment for his improvisations, his roots go way back and into a past many of his companions have wilfully or unconsciously forgotten.

In 1994, Romus disbanded Jazz On The Line to „move on to other forms of sonic exploration“ but briefly returned to its trademark sound for „Strap“, the soundtrack to a story by Steven Marshall. Even though not a single member of the „Thundershine“ lineup is present here, the same bonedry funkyness and tantalising melodic zest permeates these seven concise tracks. Two experimental excursions have been implanted into the soft core of the album, which mostly focusses on high-voltage exchanges and building a hypnotic thrust. But it is probably the two romantic cuts, „Candlelight“ and the closing „Reaven's Gate“ which mark the highlights of this short but all the more seminal work. Which only goes to show that Rent Romus can get worked up about a lot of things. But in the end, his love for music always prevails.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Rent Romus
Homepage: Rent Romus at MySpace
Homepage: Edgetone Records

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