Jazz CD Reviews

Daren Burns – Fear Is Not the Natural State of Civilized People – Urban Nerds

Bassist Daren Burns and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith create post-fusion music set well outside the box.

Published on August 12, 2012

Daren Burns – Fear Is Not the Natural State of Civilized People – Urban Nerds

Daren Burns – Fear Is Not the Natural State of Civilized People – Urban Nerds 004, 49:48 [3/15/12] ****:

(Daren Burns – fretless bass, producer; Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet; Scott Collins – guitar, loops; Sarah Phillips – piano; Craig Bunch – drums)

Electric bassist Daren Burns has been a fixture of the free improv scene for about three decades, including fronting the Southern California-based Onibaba, and has performed with similarly-skewed artists such as guitarist Nels Cline, trombonist Bruce Fowler (Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart) and multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia (also in Onibaba).  Fear Is Not the Natural State of Civilized People (recorded in 2009 but not issued until earlier this year) is Burns’ first solo venture, released via his self-started, Urban Nerds label (whose motto is “creative music for the 21st century”), which plans to distribute Onibaba’s latest output later this year.

Burns’ 49-minute, four-track album is an intense, postmodern experience which Burns dubs post-fusion. Burns formed a skilled quintet well-suited to his ideas of controlled composition: trumpeter, long-time friend and mentor Wadada Leo Smith (Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Anthony Braxton, Derek Bailey), alongside former fellow students and collaborators from the California Institute of the Arts: Scott Collins (guitar, loops), pianist Sarah Phillips and drummer Craig Bunch. While Burns’ music is experimental, this is not free jazz in the traditional sense. Burns writes structured pieces which allow musicians to create unique interchange with the material and include their own inspirations and personality traits. Burns uses the expression of freedom as an intertwined, thematic unit in important ways, both musically and otherwise. Each track is named after a historical or current political or social catalyst for change. The album title is attributed to Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi: the title track is also a tribute to the recently released democracy advocate. Other pieces honor famed Native American rebel Geronimo, Gandhi (the leader of Indian nationalism and pioneer of non-violent resistance) and Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti.

The 12-minute opener, “Goyathlay” (the Anglicized spelling of the Apache name for Geronimo), is forceful and assertive. Burns supplies bass lines which bolster the melodic and contentious undercurrent, and is often the only player who outlines the melody, as Collins’ provides a foundation of contorted electric guitar effects and later on a hard-hitting, lengthy guitar solo. Smith is a vanguard performer throughout “Goyathlay,” and sounds much more vehement than the introspective tone typically associated with his work, although he never grandstands and makes each trumpet note count, most notably the sustained note which concludes this piece. The 14-minute “Gandhi” has a softer and more ambient timbre. At the start, Phillips imparts an Anthony Davis-esque quality, where single, high-register piano notes pour out atop a static, electronic background. Drums then unobtrusively roll in, eventually followed by Smith’s lyrical and reflective mannerism, where he makes use of the arrangement’s open space: listeners can hear Smith’s feeling of discovery and invention as he and the rest of the group traverse this atmospheric composition.

“Aung San Suu Kyi” has a similarly contemplative approach, with an appropriate Asian connotation via nuanced percussive touches. This is fusion distilled to a muted essence, with modest elements of folk, blues, jazz and contemporary creative music. Smith’s polished trumpet frequently takes the lead, where he showcases his mastery of simplicity: he is versatile but minimal. Burns follows suit with his understated but inspired bass interludes. The quintet closes with another intentionally potent cut, “Fela Kuti.” This 13-minute number is the least confrontational, with a propelled bass groove which rides and prods during the whole duration: occasionally the tune echoes Miles Davis’ jazz-rock phase. Smith’s fertile bright tone is on full display, while Collins employs judicious application of effects, amplification and distortion which sometimes enters Jimi Hendrix territory and becomes an intriguing foil to Phillips’ avant-garde leaning keyboard. Unlike some modern composers, Burns does not produce a straitjacketed musical terrain during Fear Is Not the Natural State of Civilized People. There are too many instances in the avant-garde community when theoretical systems dead-end to a cul-de-sac. Here, Burns establishes a framework but always sets up invigorating opportunities for improvisational possibilities: Burns proves it is better to think outside the box than create a new box.

TrackList: Goyathlay; Gandhi; Aung San Suu Kyi; Fela Kuti.

—Doug Simpson




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