Bruford Levin Upper Extremities

Bill Bruford & Tony Levin

Papa Bear Records, 1999

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Remember the skit that Steve Martin used to do on Saturday Night Live, where he and another character would stare into the camera and keep repeating, "What the hell is that?" There are times I find myself asking the same thing when I listen to an album for the first time - and often, the question is asked in a rather negative way.

But in the case of Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, the latest collaboration between King Crimson bandmates Bill Bruford and Tony Levin, when I asked, "What the hell was that?" I was pleasantly surprised, and asked the question out of sheer joy. While this disc will shatter any preconceived notions you had about music, it contains some of the best conceptual pieces I think I have ever heard.

Right from the opening track "Cerulean Sea," you can tell this is going to be a wonderfully strange trip. With Levin thumping away on his bass with Funk Fingers (while providing a mantra-like drone) and guitarist David Torn throwing guitar loops here and there, Bruford pounds out his own rhythm that almost has nothing to do with what his other bandmates are playing. Strange thing: it works, and it works well. This one track alone is enough to sell me on Bruford Levin Upper Extremities.

But wait, there's more. Kicking into a jazz/funk piece (and welcoming their fourth bandmate, trumpeter Chris Botti), the band kicks into what could be a rebirth of cool in jazz. Funny thing to note about this track, as well as this whole album: Each instrument is in the forefront equally, something that is a refreshing change of pace (normally, a few instruments are buried in the mix so far that it's damned near impossible to hear them).my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The key word that is the key on this album is texture, and Bruford Levin Upper Extremities provides a whole palate of them for you to choose from. Whether it is the subtle touches of what sounds like a sunrise in the Orient ("A Palace Of Pearls"), Levin going nuts bowing his upright bass in a rock style ("Cracking The Midnight Glass") or even segueing from a band dinner into a complex rhythm pattern that would challenge even the most experienced musicians ("Etude Revisited"), this musical partnership will constantly challenge and excite you - and I have yet to get tired of this album, despite multiple listenings.

What is especially amazing is that Bruford and Levin can make beautiful music out of the strangest instruments. There are numerous interludes on which Bruford plays on a broken-down piano's strings, using mallets and, according to Levin, even a garden rake. The highlight of the experimentation are the two pieces featuring the Taos "DrumBass," a combination bass guitar and Native American drum. The gentleness of this instrument is incredibly powerful - and the second interlude featuring it is further highlighted with Torn's working in a National slide guitar.

Bruford Levin Upper Extremities is a wonderful highlight for both Botti (who already has been recording on the Verve label) and Torn, whose work might be unfamiliar to many people. In fact, after I heard his work on this album, I started kicking myself that I hadn't listened to or stolen a copy of Door X from the radio station I used to work for when it came out earlier this decade. (Another classic case of "If-I-Only-Knew-Then-What-I-Know-Now syndrome".)

The whole ball of wax comes together on "Presidents Day," which takes the best highlights of some of the album's quirks - band dinner, piano raking, vocal droning - and throws it all into one beautiful mix. Incredible!

Admittedly, this album may scare off the weak-hearted - too bad, 'cause they're gonna be missing out on something really tasty. If you're familiar with the previous work of any of the participants (especially if you're into the later-day King Crimson circa 1981), then this should sound like a natural progression for Bruford and Levin.

Bruford Levin Upper Extremities is not the kind of album you're going to find on the shelves of your local Best Buy, but it's worth the trouble of going through mail-order to snag what could well be the best album of 1998.

For more information or to order this album, contact Papa Bear Records at: (800) 688-2227, or visit their Web page. If you order it, please be sure to tell them that you heard about it from "The Daily Vault".

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Papa Bear Records, and is used for informational purposes only.