Show review: Tatsuya Nakatani, Mighty Vitamins, Neil Jung w/the Archetypist

I caught a great triple-bill last Saturday just up the street from my house at the Toothblack House: local weirdo acts The Mighty Vitamins and Neil Jung w/the Archetypist warmed up the joint for percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, who has graced Lincoln with his presence four or five times in as many years on his seemingly never-ending touring schedule.

The Mighty Vitamins opened as a duo minus Brad on trumpet, but the proceedings sounded great as always. This time we heard squeaky toys (and the dogs who love them) and radio/sound effect samples from Jerry, and of course the latest iterations of Jay's tabletop plucked/bowed inventions, now spilling into satisfying long insectiod/floral poles with various configurations of strings ready for bowing and quick pitch adjustment. I especially loved the fantastic set ending via spontaneous radio sample to the effect of "if you can't make it in 5 years as a writer, you can't make it." You can't plan those things, but they often work out wonderfully if you have your head(s) in the right place.

This was my first time seeing Neil Jung w/the Archetypist, and I love the concept. Essentially Jim plays guitar with a bit of loop building thrown in, while Robert Stewart creates spontaneous poetry, typing it into an electric Smith Corona typewriter that's also being amplified as a sound production device.  Mostly the typewriter produces the expected typing sounds, with occasional glitchy electronic sounds that indicate potential spelling errors. Stewart must be an excellent typist and speller, as these peek through only rarely. The guitar and the typing are live mixed/recorded onto a multitrack cassette recorder. When the poem is complete, the tape is stopped, flipped, and played in reverse while Schroeder mixes the tape and some more guitar. And Stewart reads the poem. And it was a good poem in addition to a good-sounding performance.

I've seen Tatsuya Nakatani do three solo shows on tour through Nebraska now, and it's always a beautiful, spiritual experience for me. One thing that came into my mind this time, though, was the degree to which his solo performances seem to use a similar set of ideas each time, presented in a relatively consistent order. And just as soon as the thought occurred to me, I wondered why that should even matter. And it doesn't. It's an interesting nuance of so-called "experimental" music shows: artists are maybe expected to change their performances more frequently and more completely than rock/pop acts. No one would be weirded out that a particular rock band shows up with their same tired instruments to play through the same set of songs one might have heard last time. Nakatani has developed his own vocabulary and approach over many years and many performances, has become intimate with the hidden sonic potential of his instruments, and can make his cymbals, gong, and bowls sound like anything from amplifier feedback to string sections to horns. This is his world, his language, and I am glad that he continues to speak it.

This highlights the problem with using "experimental" as a descriptive term for this kind of music: Nakatani isn't really experimenting. Though the music is improvised, he's intensely, intimately aware of what sounds he's producing and how to produce them as well as their collective sonic effect. We aren't seeing an experimentation phase--he is communicating and emoting.

The same holds true for most of the often-called "experimental" acts I've seen and heard on recordings. Experimentation is a part of the musical process, but that's largely true for musicians working in any style. Improvising is itself a discipline with components of study and practice, skill sets, etc, and improvisation and experimentation aren't necessarily, or even normally, interchangeable concepts.

For those new to Nakatani's solo work, I would highly recommend his Green Report 12, which documents a lot of the approaches he embraces for solo live sets. And for a great ensemble album, I'm especially smitten with the 3-sided LP "Fever Dream" by MAP, the trio of Nakatani, Mary Halvorson on guitar, and Reuben Radding on bass. It's a beautifully recorded album, and the improvisations show a deep mutual respect. Taiga Records productions feature beautiful artwork and packaging, too, whose pleasurable physicality is a valuable supplement to the listening experience.

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