Pazz and Jop

For no small portion of North Texas music fans, the sound is unmistakable. The soulful electric piano runs, the swinging hi-hat rustle, the strolling bass line. The three intertwine to form the opening salvoes of "Manitou Inclined," the fiery first track on the new Earl Harvin Trio album Unincorporated on Two Ohm Hop. The track starts out with the musicians--bassist and guitarist Fred Hamilton, drummer Earl Harvin and piano and keyboard player Dave Palmer--establishing a melodic motif over which they begin layering rhythmic textures and harmonic nuance until the melody virtually evaporates into a free-wheeling tumult of activity. Out of this roiling maelstrom, the three effortlessly return to the melody some five minutes into the song, as if it were lurking just below the ruckus the whole time.

It recalls the sort of sonic spree that the band flies off into during its live sets, where the trio is liable to leap in any direction at the drop of a single note, playing tennis without the proverbial net. "In a lot of ways, it's really the first record of the way the band's been playing for the past several years," Palmer says from his home in Austin. "I feel like we've finally made a record where we had time to make what we wanted. We feel like it's an accurate representation of what we've been doing."

"I think it's two things," Harvin says. "I think it's a really good representation of where we're at, and I think it's a really good indicator of what we can do in the future, because it was the first time where in the studio we could really extrapolate on our ideas."

After 1995's Trio/Quartet and 1997's Strange Happy, two commendably straight-ahead jazz albums, and 1999's sprawling epic Live at the Gypsy Tea Room, all on the sorely missed Leaning House Records label, the Trio is trying something a little bit new. It moves into the genre-defying realm that it's flirted with live, especially in the past year. The band's hallmarks are still there--a fancy for midtempo, organic melodies and rhythmic diversity--but there's a couple of curveballs present as well. The Indian timbre floating through "Debashish" recalls the Sun City Girls' recent Carnival Folklore series and features Hamilton playing a multistring slide guitar he had built in Calcutta, made by Debashish Bhattacharya, who appears on John McLaughlin's Shakti Live in Bombay. For "Lily," Hamilton finger-picks a five-string banjo. And on the three improvisations--named one to three, respectively--the group dabbles in layered electronics and ambient percussion that has it dancing closer to Squarepusher and Spring Heel Jack than anything in the jazz pantheon, even the electric compositions of '70s Miles Davis.

"It's a very unique-sounding record, I think," Palmer says. "And it's the first record where, to me, not only do I like the songs, but when you listen to them in order, the record as a whole is a sort of statement. I think it's a reflection of where our heads are. I hope in some ways it's a rebellious record. It's certainly not intended to be something you put on and listen to while you're fucking your girlfriend."

Part of that rebellion may come into play in the album's overall sound. The exquisitely produced Leaning House albums sounded like jazz albums proper, with instruments panned in the mix according to studio placement. Unincorporated is mixed more like a hip-hop album. It's heavy on the low end and sparing with mid and high range. It lends the album a wide-bodied fatness that suits the Trio well, surprisingly. Whereas Live at the Gypsy Tea Room was the sort of high-quality snapshot that showcases its finer points on audiophile equipment, Unincorporated wouldn't sound out of place pumping out of the windows of a low-rider cruising through Oak Cliff.

Unincorporated is also the Trio's most compositionally diverse album to date. Palmer has always been the principal composer for the band on record, and he has three pieces on this album. But it also features two compositions by Harvin, two by Hamilton, and the three improvisations are credited to the group.

In fact, this egalitarian approach to songwriting is perfectly encapsulated by "Manitou Inclined," the above-mentioned opening track. "That's something Fred wrote in the early 1970s," Harvin says. "And he didn't even bring it in. Dave stumbled on it in Fred's book because we all have copies of each other's music. And without ever having heard the song, just reading it off the paper, he played it the way that Dave would play it, in his style. It's not really the way the song goes, but it ended up being a perfect tune for the band."

"It's also recorded on an album I did in '94 with drummer Ed Soph and a bass player from Portland, Oregon, Dave Treason, so it's been recorded once before, but this is a very different version of it," Hamilton says from his office in Denton. "The piece was written when I was in the Air Force, actually. I was stationed in Colorado Springs, which is right below a little town called Manitou Springs, which inspired the title. And it came out very nicely."

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Bret Mccabe