Rotten Heart Disease

With the Forensic Trio, Martin Archer and his Discus Music label venture even further “out” and turn in an extremely experimental record, formed by a combination of free improvisation, “interactions” of sound, electronic music, and a little tape editing and collage technique.

The trio are Pat Thomas, who manages to play both inside piano and the keyboard at the same time (a grand piano, at that), percussionist Johnny Hunter, and Archer himself on electronics and saxophones – he deliberately chose instruments from the E-flat family, since to him the B-flat saxophones lead to “grandstanding and machismo”, perhaps a dig at certain free jazz skronkers whose penchant for self-expression can lead to wild and untamed blurts. If anything can be said to characterise the strange music on Heartless (DISCUS 137CD), none of the above adjectives really apply, and the general aim of the trio has been to think small – small sounds, short phrases (even when we end up with 23-minute excursions). Even the drummer is working on a stripped-back kit, hopefully just one snare and a hi-hat, along with some tiny hand-held instruments. Pat Thomas recently turned in a good Anthony Braxton record for this label (leading a group called The Locals), which I mention as I sense a faintly cerebral dimension to parts of today’s record, although I very much doubt if that’s the trio’s intention.

The opening piece ‘Rotten Start’ is severe enough to cause instant buyer’s remorse for many listeners, with its frankly disjointed syntax presenting quite a tough barrier to musical enjoyment. The second cut is much warmer and more engaging and liable to strike a chord with fans of recordings where Jimmy Lyons puffed with Cecil “Mr Quicksilver” Taylor, but somehow it’s tad off-putting to find it titled ‘Improvisation In Traditional Form’, as though it were an abstract painting catalogued in an art museum. However, I’m slowly being won over by the centre-piece here, some 25 minutes of ‘Heartless, Heartless…/ Rotten State’ – and if it isn’t a long enough duration for you, consider that this was edited down from two much longer pieces, which have been spliced together in an alternating pattern structure. Arguably this stark and barren workout is every bit as stilted as ‘Rotten Start’, but for some reason I’m drawn into the diabolical mesmerising whirlpools of it by the alien and alienating electronic music of Archer here, plus of course the doom-laden and muffled thunks emerging from the enervated piano of Thomas. I feel we haven’t heard enough from the electronics wing of the Martin Archer operation, so it’s good to know their funding hasn’t been completely withdrawn. Hunter gets into the spirit of this one – a chilling, frost-encrusted spirit with a heart made of razor blades – with short stabby percussive attacks that are like the blows from a small surgical hammer, shattering various bones in the human anatomy one by one, and his work adds a very haunted dimension to what is already a rather distressing artistic statement.

I kind of want to compare ‘Heartless’ to modernist compositions by Berio or Stockhausen, but fundamentally the three players are still coming to their task from a jazz-improvisation direction, and these shocking intervallic leaps, dynamic nightmares, strange sounds and uncertain atmospheres are being created by intuition and creative interaction, not by a pen on the music stave. We’ve got to judge this one piece a mighty success, and the ingenious editing between the two unconnected pieces really brings it to life (a horrifying, mutated form of life, that is, like an unholy cross between two mythological monsters), and it might be worth the price of admission alone. Although ‘Rotten Star’ is also a dark snake-charmer on its own terms, perhaps the closest incarnation of the sort of avant chamber-jazz they might have been shooting for in the first place. The three players seem to be inhabiting three different places, both intellectually and physically, and like a star about to explode, the piece almost tears itself into pieces.

At this point I could mention the “sad” and “downbeat” titles devised by Archer for these pieces, an index perhaps of his generally pessimistic outlook on modern society, though he says he wrote them down “before the events of 2022”, a slightly obscure reference to current affairs – does he mean the invasion of the Ukraine? The worsening of global warming? The high cost of living? The general ever-worsening crisis in UK politics and society? Or all of the above?

From 4th July 2022.