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Tommy Babin's Benzene: Your Body is Your Prison

img  Tobias Fischer

The first complete album of original compositions by Vancouver-based bassist and composer Tommy Babin is an explosive display of instrumental interplay, free improvisation, and loose song structures that bring to mind the controlled chaos of late Mingus, Ornette Coleman, or John Zorn's Naked City. Like Zorn, Babin seems unconcerned with genre restraints. While firmly rooted in modal jazz, Your Body is Your Prison melds elements of noise-rock, greasy funk, Afro-pop, and aleatoric music, making for a spastic, “in-your-face” boundary-pushing listen full of unexpected detours. Anchored with propulsive, heavy-hitting bass and drum grooves, the album achieves a perfect balance of intellectual/experimental creativity and listener accessibility without artistic compromise.

The opening track, “Your Body Is Your Prison,” sets the stage with a brooding puddle of low-end string bass gymnastics, light but phrenetic drumming and slow-motion Bill Frisell-meets-Enrico Morricone guitar figures. By the composition's halfway point, the ensemble has jolted into a swampy hard funk  backing a full-force bari sax improvisation. This mix of collective improvisation and through-composed music pervades throughout the album. “The Thing and I” begins with a wall of guitar distortion that coagulates into a heavy-handed guitar/bari descension before opening up to pensive jazz solos. In “Les Trousduciel,” a gentle ballad, saxophone and guitar trade imitative figures occasionally broken by unison melodies before deconstructing into quiet collective improvisation. “Pretty Boy Floyd” moves from a free drum solo before tightening into minimalist Afro-beat. 

Even within the context of its more rigidly composed sections, however, the music never loses its sense of freedom. Babin and drummer Skye Brooks perpetually urge the soloists out of their comfort zones, shifting to double-time moments, changing feel unexpectedly, and guiding the music through harsh textural changes. With the exception of several extended bass solos demonstrating Brooks' impressively technical and inventive upright playing, there are few instrumental solos unobstructed by interspersions by the other players. The album's most exhilarating moments occur when all players let loose into chaotic messes of free jazz and textured noise. Even at its most abstract, the music is so packed with raw energy and telepathic interplay that it remains engaging.

Babin named his band “Benzene”  and the music certainly has a lot in common with that highly-flammable industrial listen. Like the greatest abstract jazz, punk, and noise-rock,  Your Body is Your Prison is built around electric instability. Much of the music's propulsion comes from the impression that it might fall apart or explode at any moment. When it does finally crash and burn, as in the high-octane free jazz freakout of the album's final track, The Sky Beneath My Feet, it does so gloriously. 

By Hannis Brown

Homepage: Tommy Babin's Benzene
Homepage: Drip Audio

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