Francois Rabbath

My early forays in record collecting were strictly economically determined. With little pocket money, I sought my treasures in out-of-the-way places and bought them cheap. Happily, this led to some life-enhancing discoveries: The Who Sing My Generation and Sell Out, right there at the corner drugstore. The Man Who Sold the World, a remaindered Mercury copy alongside full-price RCA reissues at the local head shop. A Beard of Stars, complete with “Ride a White Swan” 7”, from an overstock sale at the college bookstore, and a promo copy of Marquee Moon among the rejects outside the college radio station. With the possible exception of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, all were under a dollar; the Television album, otherwise impossible to find where I lived, was free—and, as the ad says, “priceless.”

But even closer than these to the core of my musical being is a flukier, more improbable find. One day my mother brought Bass Ball by François Rabbath home from Woolworth’s for my brother, who played string bass. Information about the record stopped with Dom Cerruli’s provocative liner notes, which place Rabbath among a nouvelle vague of French jazz. Rabbath and his drummer, Armand Molinetti, serve up twelve elegantly arranged, sonically adventurous tracks. Some are live; others feature bass overdubs—up to three, but generally no more than one. Maybe it’s that Bass Ball is on Philips, but to me it’s oddly reminiscent of Vincebus Eruptum. Rabbath is far subtler than Blue Cheer, true, but his multi-tracked basses are sludgily akin to Leigh Stephens’ guitars. In Rabbath’s hands the bass is a protean creature of moods: a gentle flamenco guitar on “Ode d’Espagne,” a cell of screaming lunatics on “Basses en Fugue.” Heavy metal starts here.

Needless to say, we wore Bass Ball out. Themes from the record soundtracked my dreams. My brother learned to approximate the songs on string bass; he was particularly effective peeling off keening arco harmonics and coughing up abrasive gutturals on “Walpurgis.” Eventually picking up bass guitar, he evoked Rabbath immediately, effortlessly, unconsciously.

When Spalax’s 2003 New Sound of Jazz turned up among Forced Exposure’s current releases, it was like running into an old friend. The disk compiles stereo versions of Rabbath’s 1964 debut and its follow up. (The CD lacks the impact of my mono vinyl, so crank it!) The songs from Bass Ball anticipate absolutely everything: Cale’s viola (“Prelude a l’Archet”), the Yardbirds’ stop-time concussion volleys (“Hesitations”), Hendrix’s technical feats of strength (“Impalas”), John Theodore and Neil Hagerty’s workouts in The Royal Trux (“Western a la Breugel”). It’s still unclear where Bass Ball belongs in the jazz canon. It’s new, all right, but it’s not free. The word “skronk,” however, aptly describes its more extreme tonalities. I’m happy to report that the tracks from Rabbath’s second album don’t disappoint. Cut from the same cloth as Bass Ball (though lighter on electronic enhancement), the seven titles are longer and, consequently, even further out.

Given its rainbow-tinted, strobe-lit cover and gag-inducing title, I was never entirely satisfied that Bass Ball wasn’t cornball stuff. It’s good to hear that Rabbath is a respected, if obscure presence in French jazz history. Of course he used drugs, as the supremely eerie “Bitume” always suggested. Spalax’s somewhat amateurish packaging does include pictures of the man himself. Not quite the mad hipster of my imagination but no square either: A balding, monkish guy closing his eyes and setting his bow for the heart of the sun.

For my money, New Sound of Jazz is our era’s King of the Delta Blues Singers. (Re)introducing a troubled young virtuoso whose shadow falls quietly across the music of the last forty years, illuminating his story while leaving intact just enough mystery, this reissue is like a portal to a world of howling ghosts. I don’t even care if it popularizes a treasured childhood secret. I doubt Rabbath’s will ever become a household name. But in a time when a young person can pick up Funhouse, Marquee Moon, and White Light/White Heat from a single aisle at Circuit City, it’s nice to know there are still further frontiers—new sounds in jazz, if you will. Buy this disk and be haunted.

Black Merda

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In a recent post on the current resurgence of soul, Scott Homewood mentions that the cult funk act Black Merda is again active. When I stumbled on their website a few months ago their reemergence, though welcome, seemed improbable, given the apocalyptic desperation that pervades their classic second album, Long Burn the Fire. As far as I knew, nothing had been heard from the group since 1973.

Perhaps the pleasant surprise of their return is just the result of too-close identification of the artists with their work. Still, listening to Long Burn the Fire, it seems like an easy mistake to make. Warnings about the dire effects of economic depression, too rapid racial integration, and general social upheaval flash by like dispatches from the ghetto wire service, mixing with elaborately arranged confessions of personal failure that cut heartbreakingly close to the bone. It would have made sense if the band had, along with the family in one of their songs, “decided to go to the moon.”

On their site, which is the first information about the group I’ve come across beyond what can be gleaned from the sleeve of Long Burn the Fire, the second album is treated as the poor relation of the group’s canon. Frankly, this surprised me: their debut (which, admittedly, I came to later and know less well) strikes me as fairly rote post-Hendrix black rock, not that much different from what other groups were doing at the time. Long Burn the Fire, on the other hand, incorporates white pop elements as brilliantly as Cicero Park or even Forever Changes. The strings that appear on about half the tracks might have seemed unnecessary or even ideologically retrograde at the time, but from a more distanced perspective they serve an important aesthetic function, highlighting through contrast the band’s unconventional and unsentimental approach to the exposition of interior states.

From the opener, “For You,” the writing is startling sophisticated. Riding on a sprung, vaguely Caribbean rhythm, major/minor key changes mirror the inconstancy of the person addressed in the song and the bipolarity of the singer. In pop music, one normally takes the assertion that “I’m nothing without you” with a grain of salt; the statement itself implies a fairly significant level of egocentrism. When Black Merda sings “I could have been a great man, you know I could’ve/ But the great man is gonna be somebody else/ ‘Cause you lied to me. . .” it’s clear that even before his inamorata’s deception the singer’s chances of being somebody were slim at best.

The pay-off at the end of “My Mistake” ensures that it will remain Black Merda’s most notorious song, but it can obscure the care with which the evolution of the singer’s attitude toward his dead friend is elaborated throughout the song. The rambling lyrics, with their circularity and loosely extended metaphors, perfectly encapsulate the dynamics of thought: “I know my love for you will last through the ages/ Just like a monument/ To a president of our land/ Who was great. . . .” Why Coleridge himself couldn’t do better than that! The pizzicato strings that respond to the closing call of “I made a mistake” sound as if they’ve stumbled in, disoriented, from a Barry White session. If the listener laughs, it’s only to keep from crying.

Of course, the band’s own playing is sufficiently awesome to obviate the need for additional instruments. As they motor into infinity on the closing instrumental, “We Made Up,” it’s clear that even lyrics and vocals are unnecessary adjuncts to their ability to capture the rhythms of introspection. To me, this makes Black Merda not only funky but truly psychedelic as well. Do them and yourself a favor and buy their CD, The Folks from Mother’s Mixer, which packages both the early 70s albums, on Funky Delicacies. Let it burn!