All Ears: Vibrations Across Time And Space Club music is often grounded in bass and rhythm, but electronic and dance songs that feature wind instruments explore innovation as well as connections with histories of jazz and indigenous music.
NPR logo All Ears: Vibrations Across Time And Space

All Ears: Vibrations Across Time And Space

Angela Hsieh for NPR
Listening to what came before is one of the most potent ways to find a path forward, and many electronic musicians interested in experimentation and improvisation are entering into dialogues with jazz.
Angela Hsieh for NPR

The pressure in my chest is what I remember most keenly about hearing Laurent Garnier perform his underground hit "The Man With The Red Face" with a saxophonist in the club. The year was 2001, it was October (give or take a week or so) and the French techno producer was at the tail-end of an 18-month tour for his 2000 album Unreasonable Behaviour that had taken him around the world. The corner of the planet I saw him in was Newcastle in the north of England, a 90-minute train ride from my then-home in Leeds. I traveled to club nights across the north regularly with friends, and that night we were at Shindig at the now-defunct club Foundation. A couple of years earlier, it'd been known as Riverside, the alternative music venue where Nirvana played their first U.K. show in 1989.

In my memory, I see the gleam of the saxophone's swan-like neck through a crowd of people; it twists and turns as if wrestling its owner, relegating them to the shadows. But my mind is probably filling in the gaps because the chances I had my eyes closed for much of the nine-minute track are high. Closed-eye listening locks the world out and the sound in.

"The Man With The Red Face" starts with the metallic hiss of a shaker and a bassline the breadth of a blue whale, frequencies at opposite ends of the scale that build between them waves of anticipation. That's what I was feeling beneath my rib cage — bubbles of energy bouncing off every nerve ending. Making an entrance 30 seconds in, the saxophone gives voice to this internal upheaval while also performing something akin to a bloodletting: It flits, flirts and howls with frustration before full-on freaking its way through what is essentially nine minutes of build. (The track was named for saxophonist Philippe Nadaud's state after Garnier goaded the performance out of him.)

Garnier came to write an early version of the track after being booked to play the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1998. In his 2003 autobiography Electrochoc(published in English in 2015), he explains he didn't want to perform without having something to play that was in conversation with the festival's raison d'être. An earlier chapter provides context to his reasoning: He talks at length of a trip to Detroit in the early '90s where he spent time with his heroes, including Underground Resistance's Mike Banks, and learned more about the origins of the sound that had changed his life. "Detroit is the birthplace of techno, a place of hardship, where jazz, the last great music of the century, underwent a change and evolved into electronic music," writes Garnier. "Be it John Coltrane or Derrick May, their obsessions are the same: space, time, groove and unfathomable melancholia."

I was reminded of seeing Garnier's live performance of "The Man With The Red Face" during a night at the London venue Scala earlier this year. I was there to see Tirzah's dreamy headline show, but it was her bandmate Coby Sey's solo support set that stirred the memory. It started with an absence — his voice reaching the stage before he did — and grew into a meditation on presence. Sey's exploration of bass, both summoned from machines and leisurely coaxed from a bass guitar, flooded the room with the roundest of vibrations. At one point, he stood at an angle in front of his gear, directing solemn spoken word passages to an unseen audience. A little later and without warning, the alto saxophonist CJ Calderwood emerged from stage right to join Sey in an intimate duet. Together, they reimagined songs including "All Change" from Sey's Whities 010: Transport 4 Lewisham EP (2017). There's something about the way the sax slices through frayed swathes of bass that elevates them both, as if hearing them in dialogue is to for the first time hear them clearly.

This dynamic is not solely the result of a difference in pitch; it also has something to do with control. Wind instruments call for concentration in breath, bass for a commitment to holding space. While the latter underpins the rhythm, it's up to the former to soar above. The one requires the other in order to make sense of its position — and its purpose. On a more abstract level, if you want to go there, it's possible to see bass as a symbolic rendering of the resonance of everything in our universe, including us. The wind instrument, on the other hand, makes a ceremony of breath, pulling music from the mechanics of life.

When I was listening to new music in the weeks following Sey's performance, I started hearing wind instruments everywhere. Especially in a club-related context. Of course, they were there before — from jazz through rhythm and blues, funk, soca, disco, house and so on, it's always the horns that get the party started — but my ears were freshly attuned to their charms. I fell head over heels for London electronic artist Lukid's "The Clappers" from his Drip EP, which builds an ecstatic melody from a bunch of water fountain-like synthetic flute sounds. I also gravitated toward PDA Compilation 1: And The Beat Goes On, which collects tracks by many of the artists who have played the London night PDA, including a handful of high-spirited turns in the spotlight by wind instruments. Like London artist Shygirl's "Beauts," for which producer Citizenn used what sounds like a swirling flute sample to establish a sensual slow-jam zone.

Ariel Zetina's recent Organism EP employs flute sounds of flute and conch shell to connect with her Belizean roots. Shahrnaz Javid/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Shahrnaz Javid/Courtesy of the artist

Then there's Organism, by Chicago producer and DJ Ariel Zetina, who augments her atmospheric acid house with the sounds of a MIDI flute and a conch shell. On her track "I Miss The Sea," she sends the former flying over a tidal beat like a seagull surfing a breeze. To prepare for the EP, Zetina researched Mayan instruments and the music of various Maya cultures as a way of connecting with her Belizean roots. Aerophones and high melodies kept popping up.

"[There's] this idea that indigenous music is purely this sort of percussion thing and divorced from a lot of melody," Zetina told me over the phone last month. "I was listening to a lot of stuff and I was like, Well, no, it's really this high-pitched flute sound that is really common. It was interesting because some of the press that was written about ['I Miss The Sea'] was talking about it as having classical influence. We really divorce the pre-colonial roots from classical music but in a lot of ways they have such similar backings."

Organism is a study in "digital memory and ancestry," she explained; a way to explore her family's cultural history through her laptop. Listening to what came before is one of the most potent ways of finding new paths forward. For all music holds within it something of the past and something of the future. It refuses to be bound by linearity, preferring instead to move in a loop as a means to till the present. In its wake lie resurfaced voices, instruments and musical ideas; endless wormholes to fall down and histories to trace.

On a structural level, Organism acts as a reminder that if you're trying to get people to dance for several hours, giving them "something different to anchor to" is a surefire way to renewed momentum. "I feel like we're in such this time where, especially in techno, melody isn't really being privileged right now," Zetina explained, referencing the minimal style that's become known as "Berghain techno" because it's favored by the noted Berlin club. "I keep thinking about this tweet that I saw that was this dude saying, 'everyone's hi-hats are too high,' going off about it, but I feel like we don't necessarily get to hear that high voice very much in the club."

Abdu Ali splices their Baltimore club music with jazz and noise: "It opened up this new way of performing for me that is really visceral and ritualistic." Elliott Jerome Brown Jr./Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Elliott Jerome Brown Jr./Courtesy of the artist

Which is precisely why it hits so hard. Thunder's no fun without the lightning. There is plenty of both to be found on FIYAH!!!, the recent debut album from Baltimore artist Abdu Ali that divines its livewire energy from splicing Baltimore club with jazz and noise. Such a union is an invitation to be mercurial, something that the musicians Ali worked with on the album took to heart. On the ferocious "F.U.F.M.," for example, Brooklyn musician Keenyn Omari's saxophone wriggles beneath Ali's searing diatribe as if being zapped by their lyrics. The song was inspired by the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire's 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. "It's about one of his theories where he talks about how when the oppressor dehumanises the oppressed, they in return dehumanise themselves," Ali explained over the phone from Baltimore. "You can't take away somebody's humanity without taking away your own."

"I was drawn to add in instrumentalists to my live set because it opened up this new way of performing for me that is really visceral and ritualistic," they continued. "It's funny because at first I was like, This ain't gonna make sense. I am a club b****, my s*** is real electronic, very digital, very club. And then it just worked."

Many of the album's tracks grew out of improvised moments on stage, others just sound like they did. Like ingenious club banger "Spiralling," on which Philadelphia producer DJ Haram curls several saxophone samples into a beat, squeezing from them a frantic energy that underlines Ali's discombobulated lyrics: "I'm spiralling dysfunction / I have no function / My head is gone / God is up to something."

"For me, the saxophone and the trumpet are as close as you can get to the human voice," Ali told me of their musical choices. "And not even just sonically, but emotionally. There's something magical about the moment when somebody's really feeling it, and playing the sax or trumpet, deeply in their pocket — it can provoke emotions in you just like when somebody's singing."

Nowhere is that more apparent than on the woozy "Chastity." On the track, Baltimore saxophonist Sarah Marie Hughes' instrument takes on the role of spiritual advisor, guiding Ali through systemic trauma toward exuberant enlightenment. The arc of Ali and Hughes' duet pays tribute to '60s jazz singer-songwriter Abbey Lincoln and drummer Max Roach, whose legendary performances together would find Lincoln reaching explosive heights. "I thought what I was doing was buck," explained Ali, "but she is literally just screaming and shouting in a gown, with her hair up, looking classy as f***."

That level of experimentation and improvisation is one of the reasons why Ali believes today's electronic artists are looking to jazz. They point to the electric period of Miles Davis in the latter half of his career as a precedent. The history of jazz also has a lot to do with it, they continue, specifically its evolution from a protest music that was demonised by racist white audiences to being institutionalised by the same people who once dismissed it.

"With all that is going on socially, politically and culturally — especially what's going on with black folk and queerness — [people my age] are tapping into the essence of jazz in trying to shake things up again," Ali told me. "I think we're going back to jazz to try and figure out a new way to think about music again."

A couple of weeks after I spoke with Abdu Ali, I found myself in the cavernous main room of long-running non-profit performing arts space The Kitchen in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. Philadelphia's King Britt was sat in front of a table of electronic gear, solemnly extracting from his winking boxes the cosmos-evoking sounds of his Moksha Black project. The performance was part of a series curated by New York artist Kevin Beasley, who designed custom sound systems and installations for each show. A few minutes into King Britt's set, someone from the audience got up to stand at a mic I hadn't noticed before. They had something in their hand, but the lights were low so I couldn't make out what it was until they raised it to their lips. It was a trombone. Not just anyone's trombone, but Dave Davis' trombone. Intermittently using a mute, Davis, who for the past 20 years has played in Sun Ra Arkestra, "sang" to Britt, sending long, lonesome notes snaking around the room. In return, Britt processed the trombone's vibrations, folding them into his synths to create an electrified call-and-response dynamic — not just between the two musicians and their instruments, but also between the two overlapping histories of jazz and electronic music.

That music is able to hold open doors to other times, contexts and cultures is one of its many gifts. I've always thought of the history of music as one long conversation: When you return to a previously discussed subject, you bring to it all the experience you gained in the break. Musicians hand down batons, but more importantly they pick them back up. It's being in dialogue with what came before that creates opportunities to illuminate previously unseen paths forward.