Big Bend: Hunched
Not a whole lot of background info is available about Big Bend beyond it being NYC-based and the brainchild of Nathan Phillips, who contributes organ, bass, vocals, and electronics to Hunched, a thirty-four-minute collection of instrumentals by the composer. Though the recording includes programmed beats, samples, and pitch-bending, Hunched is neither a purely digital nor solo recording, however, as Phillips is joined by Craig Schenker (alto sax), Clarice Jenson (cello), Tracy Silverman (five-string violin), Alison Mari (oboe), and Caleb Winn (drums) (plus saxist Justin Keller on “Swarms”). What results is a heady, forward-thinking eruption of acoustic and digital sounds that resists easy pigeon-holing.
New York has been for decades now a fertile center for the development of innovative and experimental music-making, and Big Bend is a signature example of the kind of project that emerges with some regularity out of Brooklyn. A few key things differentiate Phillips' outfit from others of its kind, however: though each of the contributors is no doubt comfortable soloing, Hunched largely eschews individual expression for ensemble playing. Yes, individual instruments can be separated out of the mix, but the music more unfolds in the form of a collective mass.
The Lounge Lizards comes to mind as one possible precursor, given the stylistically omnivorous character of John Lurie's band. Like it, Big Bend pulls from multiple genres, in its case funk, jazz, psychedelia, electronica, and classical minimalism. Nowhere is that approach more evident than during “Swarms 2,” where swirling Reich-styled woodwinds collide with smatterings of electronic noise for three ultra-dense minutes. For whatever reason, Phillips likes multi-part suites, with Hunched presenting “Red Wasp” in four parts and “Swarms” and “Division Market” in two parts each. His bass playing stands out as one of the music's more distinctive elements, and when he pairs up with Winn, the material achieves a muscular bottom end that separates Big Bend from experimental instrumental outfits such as NOW Ensemble and yMusic.
Big Bend's persona comes into focus in the second track, “Red Wasp 2,” a lumbering funk cut ear-marked by a catchy organ melody and textural shadings of strings. “Swarms 1” similarly derives its memorable quality in part from an organ melody, though its chugging machine pulse and strangulated solo spotlights also give it character. Though soloing is downplayed, certain pieces do bring specific musicians to the forefront: Silverman, for example, elevates “Red Wasp 4” with her string gestures, while Schenker's flutter is prominently featured in “Division Market 2.” Field recordings also find their way into the mix, as evidenced by the inclusion of arcade bleeps in “Division Market 1” that seemingly incite call-and-responses between the machines' blips and Mari's oboe phrases. But all things considered, it's somewhat of a contrivance to highlight individual players and instruments when each piece on this promising debut functions more as a total ensemble expression.