Moritz Von Oswald Trio, Vertical Ascent

[Honest Jon’s Records]

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“Live” is a tricky word in electronic music. Live sets, even by favorite producers, are too often disappointing. In reducing performance to a traditional recital mode, selections are limited to the artist in question’s own tracks, a sense of flow can get lost in the shuffle, and worst of all, the performer is frequently seen doing little more than staring at a computer screen, occasionally clicking. The effects of this approach — not naming any names, but I’ve heard laptop sets which featured a sound uncannily reminiscent of the “you’ve got mail” tone — can be frustrating at best, depressing at worst. Part of what’s exciting about electronic dance music is the spontaneous flux, the dispersed authorship, the paradoxical live-ness of a great DJ set. So what’s the point of “live” performance, anyway?

With Vertical Ascent, Moritz Von Oswald, Sasu Ripatti, and Max Loderbauer offer a compelling argument in its favor. The Moritz Von Oswald Trio is appropriately presented like a jazz ensemble, in which the leader gets top billing but his numerically specified group is of vital importance. Though Von Oswald is the most eminent participant for his innovative and vastly influential work as half of Basic Channel, Maurizio, and Rhythm & Sound, to name a few, Ripatti and Loderbauer make their presence felt. In fact, Ripatti, better known as Luomo or Vladislav Delay, could arguably be considered the creative engine of the trio’s performance style. A trained jazz percussionist who cites Philly Joe Jones — the energetic drummer of Miles Davis’ first great quintet — as a major influence, Ripatti’s intricate, shifting rhythms, played on a drum set of his own construction, form a complex imaginary landscape for his bandmates to color with their inventive and emotive synth work. Loderbauer is also experienced with an improvisatory approach to live performance, in a mostly ambient mode with his earlier group Sun Electric and now with Tobias Freund in NSI.

None of this would matter if the music wasn’t fantastic, and there is no doubt it is. Each track is simply named “Pattern” and its respective number, but perhaps the plural would have been more appropriate. There are levels upon levels of patterns at work here that, in spite of frequent genre allusions, add up to something startlingly original. The drifting tones of “Pattern 1” are anchored by a pulsating high-hat pattern that seems alternately jazzy, funky, or housey, while “Pattern 3” seems to glide into and out of a Latin clavé. Ripatti never lets a loop rest, adding to and restructuring rhythms that both draw from and inspire complementary shifts in the synthesizers. “Pattern 2” is the slowest, most ambient of the four tracks, its kick drum lurching between the sound of mallets striking guitar strings while Von Oswald sprinkles atonal Fender Rhodes improvisations on top. “Pattern 4” is where the leader’s celebrated dub reggae influence — one of his most influential contributions to techno — is heard in full form. With sweeping synth washes coating a monstrous bass line and a strangely effervescent cowbell sound, the track sounds like Lee “Scratch” Perry and Edgard Varèse stuck in a space shuttle with nothing but a mixing board to keep them company.

The interplay we hear from this band — and it is a band — brings to mind the work and theory of another jazz legend, Ornette Coleman. Appearing in the late fifties with a style of improvisation in which timbre, melody, and rhythm became as or more important than harmony, Coleman shocked the music world with his radically innovative quartet — and later, for his landmark Free Jazz album, a double quartet — which in retrospect seems not only virtuosic, but downright telepathic. Coleman eventually gave a name to his improvisatory theory: harmolodics. This idea is, in many ways, is a precedent for dance music: though some DJs mix by key, most of us match beats and tones. The Moritz Von Oswald Trio has made this connection even more apparent, by using electronic instruments and dance styles to improvise freely in the manner of Coleman’s Free Jazz, for which almost nothing was written beforehand. Von Oswald edited Vertical Ascent together from parts of various freeform jam sessions recorded with Tobias Freund, bringing to mind Miles Davis and Teo Macero’s work in the 1970s when reel-to-reel audio tapes and scissors were instruments as essential as Miles’ trumpet.

Add the Moritz Von Oswald Trio to names like Octave One, Kraftwerk, Underground Resistance, and the few others on a short list of live electronic music performers who are truly worth hearing. We can only keep our fingers crossed that more appearances by this group are forthcoming; in the meantime, Vertical Ascent is an essential, absorbing listen.

tom/pipecock  on July 13, 2009 at 8:41 AM

this record is so so good.

chris m  on July 13, 2009 at 1:10 PM

great review, and a great record. one of the most compelling electronic records i’ve heard since ‘plays non standards’.

Simon  on July 13, 2009 at 7:56 PM

Great review! So happy it is now available on digital.. going to grab it this week.

chrisdisco  on July 14, 2009 at 12:02 AM

this is a great review of an excellent album, but i found the framing about livesets rather odd, especially the acts it was paired with at the end.

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