Out in the high desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico, some 7,500 feet above sea level in the foothills of the majestic Sangre de Christo Mountains, strange and wonderful things were bubbling up when in-demand drummer Matt Chamberlain and keyboardist Brian Haas met in the magical adobe style Frogville Studios for three days of unadulterated improvisation. Unlike their previous collaboration, 2013’s Frames, which was meticulously through-composed by Haas and performed with exacting precision by the duo, Prometheus Risen is a free-flowing, no-holds-barred, live-in-the-moment encounter based on daredevil instincts, a shared arranger’s aesthetic and mutual trust.
“Frames is one piece written in all 12 keys,” said Hass, who co-founded Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey 20 years ago and is also currently a member of Nolatet featuring Mike Dillon, James Singleton and Johnny Vidacovich. “I wrote out every note and we played it through like a piece of classical music. So when we started talking a couple of years ago about doing something again in the future, we decided that we wanted it to be fully improvised.” He added, ”It’s hard to get Chamberlain on a record. He’s one of the busiest people I personally know. So I’m just honored that he was willing to come to Santa Fe and improvise with me for three days. I take it as a huge compliment and I’m just humbled by it.”
Chamberlain, a ubiquitous session man who has appeared on recordings with Brad Mehldau, Bill Frisell, Edie Brickell, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, Macy Gray, Morrissey, Mike Gordon, Of Montreal, Marco Benevento, David Torn, Keith Urban, Bruce Hornsby, The Wallflowers, Critters Buggin’, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Herbie Hancock, among countless others, fully embraced the idea of exploring freely with Haas in the studio in real time. “The last thing we did together was very compositional, so I thought it would be way more fun to get together and just throw down. No overdubbing or pre-determined forms or anything. It was just a stream-of-consciousness, hope-for-the-best kind of situation. We just started playing and shit started happening. It was kind of crazy.”
What is remarkable about Prometheus Risen is that while all the keyboard parts, Moog basslines, ambient washes, textures, loops and huge groove playing on the kit might suggest a meticulously-crafted project involving multiple layers of overdubbing and tons of post-production work, the entire album was in fact done live in the studio. As Haas explains, “We were set up three feet away from each other in the studio, just reacting intuitively to what we were hearing. And Matt would make these swaths of color and sound on his laptop that were just amazing. And then we would both improvise on top of that. Nobody is as fast and proficient as Chamberlain with Ableton Live and the live drum sampling thing. Matt’s doing that at a level that nobody else is doing it at. Very few drummers can create that kind of thing while simultaneously playing drums on top of it in real time. He’s just very unique that way.”
While Chamberlain underscores pieces like “Space Colonization,” “Orange Purple Sunshine” and “African Crowley” with his signature huge groove, he also provides a rainbow of colors throughout Prometheus Risen by thinking orchestrally from behind the kit with his sampling-looping skills. “It’s just a by-product of being a session musician and being in the studio all the time,” he said. “I’m a big fan of a lot of electronic music but I’m also a fan of just records that have certain types of sounds. I love a lot of the early Brian Eno stuff, the way that he incorporates sounds into his records. And I try to bring a little bit of that to our improvs, at least from the drum kit perspective of processing the drums and taking them out of a purely acoustic straight-up drum sound.”
He likened the process to an electric guitar player changing his sounds as he’s playing by triggering effects pedals. “I try to treat the drums like that in the studio, where there’s a couple mics going through my laptop with some pre-designated effects on and off. And you can just capture a groove and loop it in real time and then we both would play off of that. Or I prepared a few loose electronic-y grooves and I would just trigger those to see what would happen. So it’s a little bit processing the acoustic drums and kind of making electronic inspired beats as we’re going, just kind of improvising with that.”
The collection kicks off with the heavy groove of “Space Colonization,” which is underscored by Chamberlain’s big-as-a-house backbeats and infused with Haas’ melodious, fuzz inflected electric keyboard motifs (tweaked with Space Echo) and deep dub basslines. “More Mentations” has Chamberlain generating live, heavily-effected loops and polyrhythms while Haas plays minimalist motifs on the piano for contrast. “Orange Purple Sunshine” has Hass in furious Rachmaninoff mode, arpeggiating frantically on top of Chamberlain’s dense multi-layered hip-hop groove. Hass is also dextrous enough to simultaneously layer on synth motifs and bass lines on this piece which truly sounds through-composed yet is purely improvised.
“Ancestral Availability” has Haas on piano an Moog bass going toe-to-toe with Chamberlain’s controlled bashing in a manner that might recall Cecil Taylor’s historic duet encounters with Max Roach. That adventurous, suite-like “Vangelis Holding Deckard’s Hand” (a reference to the soundtrack composer of Blade Runner and the character played in that 1982 Ridley Scott film by Harrison Ford) melds cascading piano against an eerie ambient backdrop and throbbing backbeats while “African Crowly” is another heavy groove imbued with Chamberlain’s humungous backbeats and Hass’ coy piano motifs and shifting harmonies, and another example of spontaneous composition at its finest.
“Less Munitions” features judicious use of Space Echo and subharmonic bass grooves to propel the piece forward. Hass’ intuitive key changes are instantly picked up on by his obedient left-hand bass lines as Chamberlain grooves mightily underneath. “Cosmic Vision” is imbued with some of the most radical ear cookies in the mix (coutresy of tweaked synths and plenty of Space Echo) while the loping- synth-fueled “Neuro Quantum Adept” kicks off with Chamberlain trigggering a quirky sounding drum machine which he processes, loops and then plays on top of. “I used to do that a lot in Critters Buggin’ during the ‘90s. So this is just a continuation of stuff that I love to do. If you have a loop or some kind of thing going through it, it sets up a nice vibe. And you can even mute different things. You can mute the drum kit and just let the loop go a bit, have both of them going at the same time, or mute the loop and just have the drums. There’s a lot of options and it’s just more fun than just sitting down playing the drums acoustically.”
“Intelligence Intensification” opens like a revved-up rocker and closes like a kinetic outtake from Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach. And the collection closes on a poignant note with “Lois Virginia Miller,” a rhapsodic ballad that sounds absolutely composed, yet was created on the spot in Frogville Studios. As Haas explains, “That’s the name of the head engineer’s grandmother who died the day before our session started. So we decided on day one to do an improvisation for his grandmother. That’s a completely improvised piece.”
Hass, who moved from Oklahoma City to Santa Fe five years ago, finds his new surroundings inspiring. “I’ve been having a blast here,” he said. “Santa Fe’s been a real creative fountain for me, that’s part of why I moved there because of the creative aspect. Whenever I’m there I’m calm and in state of creation. It’s a good feeling.” He was in a particularly high creative state during his three days of music-making with Chamberlain at Frogville, as they hit on a telepathic accord during the course of three days.
Meanwhile, the two intrepid improvisers are planning to push the envelope even further on nine upcoming gigs in October. “He just wants to get together and improvise,” says Hass of his partner Chamberlain. “We made the record, we got lucky in three days. And so, we’re just going to get together and improvise for the shows.”
Adds Chamberlin, “When we do the live gigs that’s going to be a whole other level of scariness, because that’s going to be improv too. So we’ll see what happens. It’ll be jump and the net will appear, hopefully. Or it won’t. Who knows?”
Royal Potato Family