October 15, 2022
Look Like - Kelsey Mines
Label: Relative Pitch Records
Catalog #: RPR1158
Location: United States
Release Date: October 28, 2022
Media: compact disc or digital download
The world of non-idiomatic improvisation/free improvisation/creative music/free jazz (choose the label that least offends your sensibilities) eschews tradition as encapsulated in a genre but, like jazz, embraces the tradition of innovation and evolutionary growth. The birth of modern "creative music" (we had to pick a term) can be traced to the late 1950's (e.g. Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor). It flourished in the 1960's in America (for example, Roscoe Mitchell and the many stalwarts of the AACM), in Europe (e.g. Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann, Joëlle Léandre and many like-minded collaborators) and in Japan (e.g. Motoharu Yoshizawa and Masayuki Takayanagi). In the past two decades, many members of this generation of musicians have died, while other age gracefully and continue to perform. Still, this music is a living organism and a distinct pleasure in following its meandering path is the discovery of each successive generation of musicians who push it forward, sculpt their own unique interpretation, define what creative music means in the present, and thus influence its future.
The staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about this evolution while we listen to music. We have a few relatively useless observations on general characteristics of this development, which we will either save for a later date or take to our graves. Here, in this review, we remark only on how Look Like, a solo performance featuring Kelsey Mines on bass and vocals, prompted the neurons in our brain to fire again in different ways while listening to the album and contemplating its message.
From the biography on her website, we learn that Ms. Mines has received an academic training in the contrabass. Her performance reveals not only a technical mastery of the instrument that she has made her lifelong companion but also a tender intimacy. The liner notes state "all music written by Kelsey Mines", so we presume that the music we hear falls somewhere to the composed side of the broad spectrum from pure improvisation to pure composition. At the same time, we feel the spontaneity of improvisation. The six tracks defy any easy recognition of conventional song structure, at least to our (admittedly limited) pattern recognition skills. The instrument itself is played in a manner that invites listeners with the promise of a familiar melody that never quite fully materializes in favor of the unpredictable turn of phrase. In no sense is the contrabass attempting to prompt a readjustment in the perception of the listener through brute, jarring sound. The request to actively listen is cordial and warm.
For the most part, Ms. Mines' voice follows the lead of instrument, both in tone and tempo. At the same time, the vocalizations liberate the bass and create the suggestion of an acoustic space in which the bass is freed from limitations of any particular idiom. There is a careful elegance here that strives to achieve a personal esthetic goal and superbly succeeds.
In the liner notes to Wadada Leo Smith's The Emerald Duets (TUM Records, 2022), the American pianist, Vijay Iyer writes, "It is wrong to compare musicians." This admonition is difficult for us to understand given Iyer's encouragement of creative, active listening and his PhD dissertation on embodied cognition in music. From our perspective, part of the natural processing of music is framing it in relation to other music. In any case, in the reviews of the Poison Pie Publishing House, we repeatedly run afoul of Iyer's rule and we will do so again in this review. This solo album by Kelsey Mines reminded us first of the kind of magic that Barre Phillips teases from his bass. In an explicit act of "passing the torch", the liner notes to Look Like contain some lovely words by none other than Joëlle Léandre, the grande dame of creative contrabass and voice! So, hearing a cultural and musical connection between Kelsey Mines and Joëlle Léandre is not just a result of one of our bad habits but is explicitly encouraged by Ms. Léandre. Without any suggestion of being derivative, we hear the knowledge and respect for the evolving tradition of the contrabass in the play of Kelsey Mines. We look forward to hearing her in dialogue with like-minded collaborators.