News that autographed copies of the two albums from our late 1990s fin-de-siècle band are back in my shop calls for a couple of reflections on their making and critical reception. The group’s origins can be traced to guitarist David Torn’s album Cloud About Mercury (1987) recorded in London for ECM records. I loved that outing. To this day, Torn’s guitar on the middle section of “Three Minutes of Pure Entertainment” from that album (from about 4.00’ in) makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
Fast forward a little more than ten years and I was at West Shokan, NY just finishing up the emotionally draining If Summer Had Its Ghosts. Not far at all from Torn and Levin in Woodstock, NY. Tony came in to do some photographs of Ralph Towner, bassist Eddie Gomez and myself. The drums were still set up and miked and the studio was available for the next few days, so Tony proposed bringing trumpeter Chris Botti up from NYC to replace a busy Mark Isham, and we got to work right away on what became Bruford Levin’s Upper Extremities (BLUE).
What does the music sound like? It sounds like a more ambient, less song-based King Crimson, with the dominant lead trumpet, often muted, casting the inevitable spell of Miles and edging the band towards improvised ambient jazz-fusion. I know what to do with that. London’s ‘Time Out’ of December 1998 thought it sounded like On the Corner meets Red. A.D. Amorosi in the Philadelphia City Paper found that we “make joyful hay of avant-prog rock” and that “Bruford-Levin’s algebraic sounds can be a hoot”. I think that’s a good thing.
Elsewhere Martin Hutchinson at the Bolton News claims it’s “bit of a mystery” why we never made another studio album after the live Blue Nights. Probably because we all had to go and get paid something, Martin. When and why a musician chooses to pick this project over that project is a balance of desire and realpolitik, God versus Mammon. Can’t play if you’re starving to death: equally, can’t think of anything to play if your face is permanently in the money trough. It’s a sometimes delicate balance that many get very wrong.
Chris Hoard of All About Jazz , notwithstanding his persistent misspelling of ‘Extremities’, was very favourable towards our efforts. He sets the albums in the context of the rapid development at the end of the 1990s of the online store and the musician’s boutique label, such as Levin’s Papa Bear Records. Over at Music Street Journal, Gary Hill thought that “If this band makes it back on to the road again, do whatever it takes to see them. The show is prog energy, atmospheric charm, and instrumental virtuosity, all delivered with a sense of fun and humor. These guys work very well together, weaving a powerful tapestry of musical wonder, all the while looking like they are having lots of fun”.
Well, I might not go so far as to say that…! But I loved the end result as captured on these discs.