There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Unless you spend your every waking hour following the Black Rock Coalition and New York’s downtown scene, you’ve probably never paid attention to guitarist David Fiuczynski’s sonic sorcery. Fiuczynski made some noteworthy appearances on MeShell Ndegeocello’s first two albums and played with edgy jazz artists such as pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and saxophonist Oliver Lake, yet he’s always existed just beneath the radar of most guitar freaks. His 1994 collaboration with keyboardist John Medeski yielded the cult classic Lunar Crush, but that record vanished from stores before it got too much attention. His newest solo effort, JazzPunk, is self-produced and released on his own boutique label, so the likelihood of its tickling new ears is slim. Which is too bad, because Fiuczynski grinds a ferociously distinctive ax.
After one listen, it’s obvious that Fiuczynski has both technique and energy to spare; he embellishes his loopy improvisations with teeth-gritting textures that recall Jimi Hendrix—with no apologies. At times, however, his nuances turn to nuisances as his paint-peeling assaults zoom into urge overkill. But that may very well be JazzPunk’s appeal: Fiuczynski gives his odd collection of old warhorses an electric spanking that sounds riveting—and ridiculous.
True to its name, JazzPunk has a crude production quality that speaks directly to the fuck-it punk credo. There is, however, inventive improvisation from Fiuczynski as well as from drummers Gene Lake and Billy Hart, bassists Fima Ephron and Santi Debriano, and percussionist Daniel Sadownick. Fiuczynski keeps the mayhem at punk-record length (approximately 45 minutes), although somehow the disc still sounds longer. His capricious takeoff on John Philip Sousa, “Stars & Stripes Whenever,” proceeds like a Looney Tune gone awry; he sardonically states the melody against Hart’s bashing cymbals, strident military march, and tongue-in-cheek clanks of a cowbell. Afterward, both Fiuczynski and Hart skitter off at breakneck speed into deconstructive bliss, leaving Debriano the huge task of building rhythmic thrust and harmony while keeping their two circus acts in sync as they laugh at their own one-liners.
Usually, when leaders show such rash impulses, there’s at least one musician in the house to balance the funny business with more refinement and subtlety. That rule seldom applies on JazzPunk: Drummer Zach Danziger and bassist Tim Lefebure match Fiuczynski’s giddy wah-wah cries on George Russell’s “African Game Fragment” with loud, robotic bounce. On Ronald Shannon Jackson’s “Red Warrior,” Lake’s muscular drumming competes with more than complements Fiuczynski’s aggressive strumming; and Jack Walrath’s fiery flamenco “Hipgnosis” implodes into a supernova of Fiuczynski’s shrinking guitar and Rufus Cappadocia’s searing cello.
JazzPunk does ease up on an enchanting reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “Starcrossed Lovers,” wherein Fiuczynski manages to sneak in some understatement on the jangling melody and Debriano accompanies with a straight face. He makes the same magic—almost—on Chick Corea’s “La Fiesta,” gracefully pecking out the melody before finally overexerting himself toward the end of the number. Fiuczynski’s off-kilter charm and hot guitar licks elevate JazzPunk beyond the level of the merely interesting, but the sameness of his high-strung mood and volume makes this album an exhausting affair that progressively dulls the senses with each powerful blow.
Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel’s major-label debut, The Enemies of Energy, lies practically at the opposite end of the spectrum from Fiuczynski’s riotous record. But don’t let the title fool you; Rosenwinkel loads Enemies with jittery cross-rhythms and witty improvisational interplay. Sometimes he crafts a hard, gold-plated sound that suggests that he could unleash bolts of fury of his own.
As a composer, Rosenwinkel writes deceptively simple arrangements in which dense harmonies anchor roundabout melodies. The picturesque arrangements of The Enemies of Energy strongly resemble Wayne Shorter’s Brazilian-informed compositions from Weather Report’s middle period—in fact, the overall mood of the album recalls that group’s adventurous exercises in ’70s fusion. The intricate “Synthetics” is the closest Rosenwinkel gets to conventional bop; even then, his country-laden guitar and saxophonist Mark Turner’s tenor writhe through the passages in a manner that leans toward Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic openness.
But like JazzPunk, The Enemies of Energy is too rich for its own good at times. “The Polish Song,” a quiet number, sounds a bit precious, with Rosenwinkel’s spidery guitar and falsetto singing rambling well out of his range. The woozy “Point of View” sounds more like some sort of athletic drill than an actual composition, with Rosenwinkel and Turner racing through a complex maze before engaging in various textural smears. And about halfway through, the monotony of the album’s lulling mood makes songs like “Cubism,” “Christmas Song,” and “Hope and Fear” sound interchangeable.
One extended piece, Rosenwinkel’s “Dream of the Old,” however, is stunning. It proceeds as a low-key suite with catching recurring motifs. Miniature episodes segue seamlessly as Rosenwinkel and Turner animate them with bracing solos, and the composition’s resolution delivers the most beautiful moments on the record. It’s at such times that Rosenwinkel shows that he’s not merely a soulful guitarist, but also a fascinating storyteller. CP