Fiuczynski’s Bird Songs Take Flight in Brooklyn


David Fiuczynski (seen here in a press photo) performed at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn on April 14.

(Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Guitarist-composer-conceptualist David Fiuczynski has been operating on the fringe for decades, first with his avant-jazz-funk band Screaming Headless Torsos in the late 1980s, and then in the ’90s as a member of Hasidic New Wave, as well as his own KiF quartet and experimental Black Cherry Acid Lab.

A longtime practitioner of the fretless guitar, whose wicked but precise whammy bar articulations have always gone well beyond the 12-tone Western chromatic scale, Fiuczynski has recently formalized his ongoing interest in non-tempered music as a professor at the Berklee College of Music and head of the school’s Planet MicroJam, an institute that explores use of microtones in jazz, ethnic folk and other contexts.

For this premiere of material from his new RareNoise Records release, Flam! Blam!, the sonic adventurer was joined by current and former students at Planet MicroJam, including fretless bassist Arti Sadtler, microtonal keyboardist Brock Benzel, drummer Josh Wheatley and violinist Helen Sherrah-Davies, who is now on the faculty at Berklee. Master world musician Yazhi Guo performed on the Chinese oboe (suona) and assorted Chinese percussion throughout this mind-blowing set.

What Fiuczynski pursues musically is akin to what inventor-futurist Nikola Tesla was chasing with alternating current. His seven-movement “Flam!,” a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship commission, has him transcribing exotic bird calls and integrating them into the fabric of new music performed with chamber-like discipline by his intrepid microtonal crew.

They performed the ambitious suite—jointly dedicated to 20th-century classical composer and amateur ornithologist Olivier Messiaen and the late, innovative hip-hop record producer J Dilla, whose patented flam beats fueled a new era of hip-hop music—accompanied by field recordings of six bird calls (the Common Loon, the Carolina Chickadee, the Northern Nightingale, the Blackface Solitaire, the Organ Wren and the Brazilian Uirapuru) and a presentation by video artist Basil Simon.

After introducing his young sidemen to begin this Shapeshifter Label set, Fiuczynski warmed the audience: “If you hear anything out of tune, it’s definitely us!” he said. He then introduced his other “sidemen” (the bird calls) as “some of the most slamming cats and most amazing musicians in the world.”

On the opening “Loon-y Tunes,” Fiuczynski employed the calls of the Common Loon and the Carolina Chickadee as melodic motifs, which got passed around from fretless guitar to microtonal keyboard. As the piece intensified, Fiuczynski and Guo engaged in an intense bit of call-and-response on fretless guitar and suono that sounded like two birds squabbling on the same branch.

“Dance Of The Uirapuru” featured the most remarkably melodic song of all the birds, expertly transcribed and doubled by Fiuczynski on fretless guitar while keyboardist Benzel held down a mesmerizing gamelan-type groove. The third movement, “Flam,” was based on the melody of the Nightingale Wren, and featured the sonorous tones of the Uirapuru in the bass line. It was underscored by J Dilla’s ubiquitous flam beats.

On “Q&A Solitaire,” classically-trained violinist Sherrah-Davies perfectly emulated the call of the Blackface Solitaire before breaking loose and improvising in an intimate trio setting over Fiuczynski’s haunting chordal washes and Guo’s heavenly singing bowl tones.

“Olseaux Idillique,” introduced by Fiuczynski as “the sound of two birds fighting over a donut,” had bassist Sadtler playing heavily-effected subharmonic tones over drummer Wheatley’s slamming backbeats as the guitarist and Guo wailed frantically like sonic pugilists. Fiuczynski, who had primarily showcased his compositions skills up to this point, held nothing back on this tune, wailing with bravado and flashing Buckethead-like chops.

The turbulent “Gagaku Chord Candy,” a showcase for Guo’s forceful suono playing, emulated the form and colors of Japanese court music while the seventh movement of the suite, “Waldstimmen (Forest Voices),” incorporated all the bird calls for a rousing finale.

Special guest Rudresh Mahanthappa blew with typical intensity and uncanny facility on alto sax on three other pieces (the “Blam!” section of Flam! Blam!)—“Loon-Ly Solitaire,” “Organ Wren” and the exhilarating set closer, “Uira Happy Jam,” which had the saxophonist and guitarist locked in some pyrotechnic call-and-response work.

Was it just a coincidence that Mahanthappa, whose Bird Calls (ACT) was one of the most acclaimed albums of 2015, was asked by Fiuczynski to emulate actual bird calls? Whatever the case, these two very potent kindred spirits are bound to collaborate again in some capacity in the future. And it will no doubt be burning.

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July 2019
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