Boys on Film

I always feel like somebody's watching me: Cinematic Orchestra
Carl Fox

Whatever genre they ply their trade in, most Miles Davis fans aspire to the more salubrious aspects of his celebrity (i.e., not the drug problem): The restless creativity, the brooding demeanor, the insatiable appetite for the good life, the snazzy clothes, the mountain of albums that still sound groundbreaking today. But Jason Swinscoe has something different in mind: He seems to aim for Davis's sound without the bother of his legend.

The Londoner, who leads the Cinematic Orchestra, sounds like a cross between Teo Macero, Davis's longtime producer, and Gil Evans, his finest arranger. On 1999's Motion, 2000's Remixes 1998-2000, and last year's Every Day, Swinscoe leavened the oceanic funk of Davis's In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew with the crimson sway of Evans's own Out of the Cool. (There was more than a little bit of David Axelrod's soundtrack funk in there as well.)

Swinscoe's production method resembles Macero's editing technique seasoned with a turntablist torque. Over stoned-slow rhythm loops, his Orchestra (anchored by saxophonist/pianist Tom Chant, bass player Phil France, and drummer Luke Flowers) improvise the basic shapes of the music: lurching basslines that swing toward bop while maintaining funk shape, cascading piano swirls, dawn-over-the-cityscape horns. Then, much as Macero did with his mountains of Miles jams, Swinscoe cuts their work into new compositions that seem to emerge from the ether, contemplate the head of a pin for a while, and fade away before their souls slink completely out of their skins.

With a wide-screen sound that seldom stints on detail, the Cinematic Orchestra is the most aptly named band in the music biz right now. (Every Day, on the other hand, is misleadingly titled--unless you happen to spend your daily life floating around on clouds while upright bassists stalk your every step.) Swinscoe has a talent for odd, ear-grabbing touches: On Motion's "Durian," he cuts off the bass-and-cymbal groove just as you're about to sink all the way into it. Tricks like these caught the ear of one member of the Directors' Guild of Great Britain, prompting him to invite the Orchestra to entertain at a 1999 ceremony for Stanley Kubrick, who allegedly did little more in his life than listen to jazz, play chess, and make movies. Swinscoe would later report, "We were just playing tracks from our first album and, um, scaring people." Given the contemplative nature of most of the Orchestra's music, it seems safe to say that British directors scare easy.

Maybe Swinscoe and Co.'s latest release, Man with a Movie Camera (Ninja Tune), would calm the Guild down--or, at the very least, acclimate them to the band's methodology. The disc is a recording of the Swinscoe-composed score for Soviet director Dziga Vertov's 1929 silent documentary. (The film is now reaching theaters in a new print and has also just been issued on DVD by Kino Video--minus Swinscoe's score, alas.) Both the movie--a richly imagistic, highly experimental look at a day in the life of Moscow--and Swinscoe's music have a deep-immersion quality. And Vertov's determination (noted in his 1922 film manifesto) to create a cinema that was "based on its total separation from the language of literature and theater" and that introduced "creative joy into all mechanical labor," finds an echo in Swinscoe's sound-over-sense production style and grooves.

From a purely aural standpoint, what's interesting about the Movie Camera score is that the raw ideas behind it were later fleshed out on 2002's Every Day, which was recorded after Movie Camera but released first. Played back to back, the discs resemble a dress rehearsal for a theatrical production, followed by that production's Pixar-animated film version. "Evolution" and "The Awakening of a Woman (Burnout)" are both sketches for their counterparts on Every Day (where the latter is titled simply "Burnout"). On Movie Camera, both tracks' modest, dreamy drift still feels like a bare-bones sketch for the Every Day version, especially on "Burnout": After-the-fact touches, like the warping and weaving synth run that disrupts the track midway through, give that song its charge. Other times, though, the rawness of the Movie Camera versions works in the songs' favor; "Evolution" is a good example, since the score's *rather modest take has a more immediate appeal than the somewhat wet version on Every Day.

Swinscoe reports that he hasn't been asked to score any other movies yet. But if he keeps getting his saxophonists to imitate foghorns as accurately as they do on "Voyage," he may get his shot. Someone's gotta play Teo Macero in the inevitable Miles Davis biopic.

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