Echo Location (feat. Malcolm Martin 2020)

Echo Location still stands firmly among the albums I feel are my most musically-accomplished, the most fully-realised in their rendering – despite this album remaining, in a sense, unfinished.  Although not released until January 2020, chronologically these recordings were completed during May-July 2019 – between editing And Then I Wasn’t… and commencing the Music For.. trollogy, and while I was still exploring cleaner ‘jazzier’ guitar tones persisting from the earlier Cupcake album. Echo Location marks particular breakthroughs and maturing in my musicianship and my learning process as ‘studio technician’; my guitar-playing sharpened in focus, expanded into new territories of improvisation & composition; I felt more solid in my bass playing;  even my nascent, faltering skills on the drumkit were developing enough to mostly capture the sorts of ‘jazzy’ feel & texture I was wanting for these recordings.

As ever, context is everything.  A common assumption is that all musicians make their music in a recording studio, and if they need extra instrumentation they just call in other musicians (mates or hired guns) with the required skills – there’s a professional arrangement, musical vision is attained and the hired help gets paid.  Of course, this assumption is correct for some musicians, but it requires either having friends (who also happen to be musicians), or being embedded & actively engaged in certain mechanisms – social connections & professional networking, competitive adherence to & promotion of professional identity, and of course access to money, whether one’s own or loaned via the further mechanisms of contractual obligation (debt).

My context is this:  I am isolated.  I do not engage easily with strangers, do not have a ‘social network’, and have chosen to withdraw from mainstream society for a number of reasons (in particular, mental health in relation to my autism).  I choose this because, in relative terms, I can function better in myself.  I have no income, therefore cannot pay another musician to record for me.  I record in an old shed in the bush, with no insulation, subject to the intrusions of dust, cold weather, and any external noises (birdcalls, traffic, helicopters etc).  My technical resources are minimal, making do with cheap or borrowed instruments, outdated technology etc.  I don’t have the opportunity to hone my musicianship by playing with other musicians, and I retired from live performance years ago because my anxiety became too extreme. 

Many people (who are not, nor ever likely to be, me) have judged all this as only a matter of my choosing, but there are other complex relationships involved. I know what I choose, and I know what I cannot choose – I’m not complaining, I am describing certain facts, all of which force one into a very different paradigm of living.

So – under these circumstances, having a particular musical vision which one knows is definitely beyond one’s physical / technical / fiscal scope can be simultaneously frustrating and motivating – it exerts a pressure that informs new realms of creativity.

From the outset, the Echo Location recordings were intended as a collaborative project.  Every piece on this album was written specifically with the trumpet / trombone / flugelhorn playing of local jazz musician Malcolm Martin in mind.  Originally from Chicago, and settled in our small rural community many years ago, Malcolm teaches music locally and leads a couple of brass bands.  He cut his teeth playing trumpet and trombone in blues & jazz bands back in Chicago, has perfect pitch, and is a lovely human being – fluid, approachable, and very easy company.  Despite both of us living in the same town for over a decade, we’d only intersected a few times socially when he first moved here with his wife, and apart from the odd hello in the street, we’d not been in contact.

Originally my friend Ross Douglas suggested the collaboration as a possible project for his experimental label S.E.A. Records.  Creatively, I have always worked well to a brief, and Ross had pointed me to a recording by Danish jazz guitarist Jakob Bro, as a stylistic reference and starting point.  It’s a beautiful album, and I was inspired by its simplicity, spacious atmospherics and subtle use of electronics. 

Other tangential inspirations at the time included Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, Frank Zappa, Tom Verlaine, early Miles Davis, Gabor Szabo, South Of Nowhere and Brian Eno, smudged in places with a kind of musical aesthetic particular to the sort of incidental music you might hear on some 70s TV cop shows.

As described earlier, I couldn’t access any ‘real’ jazz musicians to play drums or bass, so I began recording ideas myself using a faux ‘jazz trio’ of me on guitar / cello bass / drums. I composed with a deliberate ear to spaciousness and subtlety, with floating guitar twists and semi-ambient percussion, so that Malcolm could improvise freely within the space.  

As is often my process, I composed spontaneously, building the pieces as I recorded them, improvising ideas without overthinking them (leaving the ‘overthinking’ – or autistic attention to detail – for the editing phase).  In the course of recording, I was also able to determine a consistent textural landscape for the music, for instance fine-tuning particular subtle uses of reverb and delay, refining the tonal qualities of the instruments, and finding the subtle edges where instrument & electronics might blend with each other. The first pieces I recorded were Spiderheart and Autumnism, and both provided the core elements I would draw on for the whole collection. A couple of guitar instrumentals I’d recorded earlier in the year also seemed to fit – A Voluptuous Unlearning, Cantaloupe – and a track from Cupcake was reconsidered, with trumpet, as During The Table, Zen Is Not A Table II.

After completing most of the recorded structures, I then approached Malcolm – he liked the music and very generously agreed to be involved.  While not collaborative in the sense of building the music together from scratch, Malcolm’s fluid, open approach and professional background meant that he attuned himself to the music easily.  His contributions are a series of spontaneous textural responses on trumpet, trombone & flugelhorn, to which I applied minimal editing later, and his playing is integral to the mood of the album. In all, we only spent a handful of mornings recording, usually recording multiple takes in one session, and I was particularly drawn to the chordal effect when all the takes were played back simultaneously – an effect I made use of in the final editing.

Unfortunately, life and other complexities interfered, and we were unable to record Malcolm on all the tracks I’d prepared. Consequently, I released the entire collection as a 13-track double album, as I still felt the pieces belonged together as a body of work distinct from all the other projects I was creating at the time. Seven of these tracks feature Malcolm’s sensitive textures, while the rest appear in their original (untrumpeted) incarnations as atmospheric guitar experiments. Malcolm’s flugelhorn playing on Patient Delineations Of Thought (our last session, and the only one using flugelhorn) was especially beautiful, and as we couldn’t record more, I re-used the same track on the title track, Echo Location. I also used the same track on two future recordings, to very different effect – Self Isolator (from the album of that name) and Assessing The Parameter, from the compilation The Mood (in fact, all four versions can be found on this album). It was such a pleasure ‘working’ with Malcolm, I would happily do so again – either to complete the Echo Location suite or try something new.

The cover image is a photo taken by Heidi, of the Bruny Island lighthouse contrasted against the sky. I knew immediately this was the image I wanted for the album – for its abstraction and its thematic resonance. The title, Echo Location, is a reference to my feelings of isolation, alone & in company – that is, the sense of sending signals out into space and waiting to see what, if anything, bounces back, in order to navigate the environment, the moments…a life. In the case of this collaboration, Malcolm was the musical echo to my signals.