This impressively packaged triple album is the work of many artists under the umbrella of Ut Gret (pronounced oot-greet), an improvising free-jazz/world music ensemble formed by Joee Conroy and former members David Stilley and James Potter in Santa Cruz, California in 1981 but now based in Louisville, Kentucky. Don't expect to be enlightened too much by the CD booklet which mostly contains a tongue in cheek history of the "grets", an imaginary 350 million year old tribe of musicians. It does however contain a neat fifteen second description of the difference between composition and improvisation. ".. in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in 15 seconds while in improvisation you have 15 seconds.
Anyway, the 3 CDs contain different sets of recordings from different periods and different artists within the broad church that is Ut Gret. The band refer to their music as 'pan-idiomatic' and it does indeed span many approaches from all over the world and throughout the classical, jazz, traditional and rock idoms. The first disk, titled The Dig, is from around 2001 and contains the only original composed material, mainly by multi-instrumentalist Gregory Acker. It is based around the gentler Javanese style of Gamelan percussive orchestration. Metallophones and custom made instruments combine with Acker's saxes and other traditional instruments such as the Didgeridoo, harp and sitar. The tempo is predominantly slow with hypnotic moods and shifting patterns of sometimes dissonant sounds. The overall effect though is highly organic and enigmatic and has an easy relaxing effect accomplished despite the non-western musical structures employed. The guitar role is taken mainly by Joee Conroy on the composed material but there are guest appearances elsewhere on disk two from avant-garde/impro guitarists Davey Williams, Henry Kaiser and Eugene Chadbourne.
Turning to that disk we find a set of longer improvisations under the title "Time Laps" from 2002. The title track features time lapses sufficient to mix a psaltry with electronic samplers and traditional Japanese bamboo flutes! Ut Gret promotes the concept of learning through experimentation and discovery, transcending the limitations and paradigms of formal musical structure. This includes playing the inside of the piano (in the style of Keith Tippett and others) as well as exploring other free interactions between instruments. "Foreplay for a praying mantis" captures the insect's imperceptible movements as it sights on its prey very effectively through swaying bass and percussion and wandering sax. More upbeat fare can be found in the "Testosterone Fairy Games" with its driving rhythm, jittery sax and tortured guitar.
An atonal Stravinsky-like string improv is next up followed by Africa meets Europe and Australia in "Music to die By" which combines ethereal trombone sounds with didgeridoo and Mbira - another kind of metallophone instrument invented by the Shona peoples of Zimbabwe. The remaining tracks return to the brass and woodwind dominated instrumental mix but the sounds are as varied as ever from the "orchestra warming up" sounds of "Pneumo-thorax", through the chaotic but engaging "Appalachian Fall" to the downright foot-tapping "The enemy is dust" with its powerful bass motifs and menacingly advancing guitar and sax. The final piece even risks using a synthesiser in the eerie "Mercury Paw".
The synth is also used on the third disk ("In C") a recording by Ut Gret of work by fellow Californian and minimalist classical composer, Terry Riley. In C was a seminal work of minimalism originally composed in 1964 and released on the CBS label in 1968. Philip Glass' style undoubtedly owes something to this mesmeric piece of music with its insistent polymetric repetitions and slowly evolving architecture. Clarinet, flute and sax overlay the basic framework with an understated but ever present marimba striking the Cs in place of the original piano. A better technical description of Riley's work than I can give is taken from Wikpedia: "the piece consists of 53 separate modules of roughly one measure apiece, each containing a different musical pattern but each, as the title implies, in C. One performer beats a steady stream of Cs on the piano to keep tempo. The others, in any number and on any instrument, perform these musical modules following a few loose guidelines, with the different musical modules interlocking in various ways as time goes on".
Not one really for the rock fan but for those wishing to listen to unlimited musical form without preconceptions, the land of Ut Gret is as good a place as any to start.