El-P: High Water (Mark)

High Water (Mark)
Thirsty Ear

In 1978, Savoy Records issued a five-album set of every last thing Charlie Parker recorded for the label. Along with lots of music that's as good as music can be, the collection presented false starts, flubbed notes, studio chatter, uninspired solos, and several takes sabotaged by a mechanically unruly alto saxophone. Back in '78, such exhaustive documentation was rare outside of Harvey Pekar's collection of bootlegs. Now the market is fat with the alternate takes, on-mic coughing, and previously concealed-from-the-public blunders of artists considerably less iconic than Mr. Parker. And that's what El-P's High Water (Mark) sounds like: the rehearsals and leftovers from a decent album that, apparently, there wasn't time to make.

High Water (Mark) is the latest jazz-not-jazz offering from Thirsty Ear's Blue Series imprint. As with other releases from the Matthew Shipp-led imprint, it pairs a non-jazz artist with Shipp and his regular New York compatriots. In theory, producer-rapper EL-P, who doesn't rap on this album, is a perfect candidate for this kind of collaboration. He's a risk-taking intellectual with a knack for finding pleasure in the ominous and beauty in noise--qualities that mesh with Shipp's heady, sometimes dissonant, often moody music. "Get Modal" points to what this album could be. Featuring a propelling bassline from the always-wonderful William Parker, the tune is a passionate acoustic-electronic collage of melody, ad lib, and craftily placed samples of steel guitar and filtered soul singing. The funk workout "Get Your Hand Off My Shoulder, Pig" is less interesting, but manages to light a small fire under a simple descending chord change, while drummer Guillermo Brown pushes EL-P's beats toward New Orleans.

The rest of the album is pushed to some far less vibrant place. Three of the tracks fool around with Charles Aznavour's "Yesterday When I Was Young (Hier Encore)," with Shipp providing cocktail-piano parodies, and a general spirit of pointlessness prevailing. Elsewhere, the harmonically stingy backing tracks seem to bore the players (the album also features trumpeter Roy Campbell, trombonist Steve Swell, and saxophonist Daniel Carter), who collectively improvise/noodle together as if the life of a senescent gnat depended on it. Lord knows the world is full of worse music than this, but given the talent involved, I wonder if a better title might have been Ebb (Tide).

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