The purpose of Thirsty Ear's Blue Series Continuum should be familiar to most experimentally-minded listeners: it's another of those brilliant-in-theory/dubious-in-execution attempts to team artists who wouldn't normally work together. For Optometry
, DJ Spooky (That Subliminal Kid) matches wits with Thirsty Ear's de facto
house combo -- Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Guillermo E. Brown and Joe McPhee -- and a bevy of esoteric guest artists. Eager to add a little extra confusion to the mix, Spooky indicates that some of the participants are live while others are sampled, and he challenges us to figure out which are which. You don't have to play along if you don't want to, of course -- and for the first few spins, you'll want to revel in the vibrant energy of the music rather than trying to spot its nearly-invisible seams. And anyway, as deconstructive listening goes, it's far more interesting to hear DJ Spooky cede control of the drums.
As good as Spooky is in the beat-dropping department, there's something infinitely more vibrant about Brown's percussion, regardless of whether it's truly live or sampled. The same thing holds true for Shipp's elegant, economical piano, McPhee's trumpet and sax, and Parker's unobtrusive bass; even out of context, they hold their shape. While portions of Optometry were undoubtedly cooked up in a studio, it's more satisfying to imagine Spooky holding his own in the midst the quartet's bustling real-time give and take, flitting from upright bass to turntables rather than engaging in static touchpad stunts. Like DJ Spooky's usual "illbient" output, Optometry is unmistakably, nocturnally urban -- but initially, it's the vital sound of city lights, busy streets and all-night bars rather than noxious, unsettling back-alley dystopia.
Three tracks in, the weirder stuff rolls out. "Variation Cybernétique: Rhythmic Pataphysic (Part I)" is a roiling ambient piece, underpinned by subtle-yet-jittery piano work from Shipp, and showcasing the solo violin of Daniel Bernard Roumain, the disc's most interesting guest star. Veering between classical restraint and gypsy vigor, Roumain keeps this "Variation" on edge; as long as he's playing, you'll never lose interest. "Asphalt (Tome II)" does a neat about-face; the woodblock and bass-drum rhythm, Spooky's turntable scratching and Carl Hancock Rux's forcefully syncopated vocals, pitched between rap and spoken word, suggest hip-hop, while the upright bass, McPhee's cyclical sax melody and a foundation of found sounds (likely the work of Pauline Oliveros) drag the track back toward free jazz the moment the vocals end. It's an intriguing push-and-pull, aided significantly by Rux, whose passionate, hard-edged delivery is more actor than rapper.
The chaotic "Optometry" is the disc's centerpiece -- a mammoth, schizophrenic mess of a tune, notable for the presence of Medeski, Martin and Wood's Billy Martin (though it's unclear whether he's an active participant, or is merely sampled extensively enough to earn a writer's credit). As they compete with breakbeats, samples, flange effects and other electronic fiddling, Roumain and the quartet scrape out their most nerve-wracking progressions and discordant runs, precipitating periodic collapses into chaos. The tune topples into cacophony a few times, only to pick itself up and slog doggedly toward the horizon, eventually coalescing into impotent blips and bleeps. For all its bluster, it's a vaguely unsatisfying journey; like many fevered improvs, its extended, detail-heavy speech lacks a slam-bang resolution, and "getting there" is more than half the fun.
When DJ Spooky pulls out the kalimba, beware -- it's time for a three-track illbient lull, and it'll be another eleven minutes before you hear a truly assertive melody. If you'd like, skip ahead to "Parachutes", the disc's return to decisive music-making, which blunts its vigorous up-down rhythm with a rap from IsWhat?!'s Napoleon, who lags ever so slightly behind the beat. He's positioned oddly in the mix, beneath flutes and other musical effects, and he lacks Rux's sharpened tones; eventually you'll wish he'd been mixed even lower. "Absentia Absentia (Dialectical Triagulation III)" sets the stage for a far more impressive contribution from Anti-Pop Consortium's High Priest -- but you're best off keeping your expectations low.
It's left to the final three cuts to end Optometry on a high note, and they deliver. "Variation Cybernétique: Rhythmic Pataphysic (Part II)" is a showcase for Roumain, whose violin work, layered over a galloping tribal beat, is at once elegant, sweet, touching, ornate and downright creepy. "Périphique" picks up the creepy vibe; its muted meditation builds and accrues but seems deliberately deprived of its lively spark, like a stillborn jazz romp. "It's a mad, mad, mad, world" closes the disc in an upbeat -- if not clamorous -- fashion, mixing elements of dub with chopped-up jazz rhythms until deconstruction ends and a compelling bop begins, and we realize how much we've missed the concerted efforts of Shipp, Brown, McPhee and Parker.
Should you follow DJ Spooky's instructions, and seek to dissemble these pieces over repeated listens? I'd suggest not doing so. The best of these tracks invite you to revel in their "wholeness" -- to accept Brown's floor-shaking percussion and Shipp's disarming piano runs as purpose-built entities rather than special effects trickery. Why spoil the surprise? The weaker cuts, meanwhile, make the process too easy; they seem too wan, too mannered, too asexual to have satisfied the players themselves. Optometry's highlights throw expectation to the wind. They're more than jazz, more than hip-hop, more than whatever the hell "illbient" actually is. It's possible to believe that even DJ Spooky, for all his word-wrangling liner-note posturing, didn't know what he had here until it was done, and that rare lapse of total control yields magic.