The tone gardens
Creative Sources Recordings, 2006
There are some amazingly talented and imaginative musicians out there who are literally exploding the ‘box’ for their respective instruments. Sei Miguel is a trumpet player from Portugal whose compositional and performing skills are charting new territories and weaving sonic textures that go far beyond what most listeners have come to perceive as ‘music’. The tone gardens finds Miguel in the company of musicians with whom he has worked a great deal over the course of his career. The disc is made up of three tracks, simply titled ‘First garden’, ‘Second garden’ and ‘Third garden’ – the titles might be unassuming, but the music is decidedly thoughtful, possessed of rewarding depth. The empathy and sensitivity employed by the quartet on this recording is astonishing – diverse elements from acoustic and electronic sources swirl and merge to create a vibrant, living whole, bringing the universe of sound conceived by Miguel and his musical partners into tangible fruition. In the hands of some improvisers, music of this type sounds strained and forced – in the case of The tone gardens, working far outside of standard forms to such an extent as to be literally unclassifiable, an incredible beauty emerges. This music can be startling at times, alternately forceful and delicate – but the overall effect is transporting.
Sei Miguel sticks with pocket trumpet on this album, played with a mute throughout the first two tracks, and on the intro to track three. There are lines of beauty emerging from his horn from time to time, but he also wields it as an audio paintbrush, accenting and highlighting like a visual artist in the throes of creativity’s forces. Sounds issue forth that are difficult to source – born in his mind and heart and given birth by his life’s wind and playing technique, they cry out, rasp, breathe and sigh. He has not only expanded his musical palette, he has incorporated every tool at his command into a new language – it communicates emotion and conjures images beyond the usual power of sound.
The three players who join him on this recording are, as I mentioned, frequent collaborators. Their talents have graced several of his recordings, and the understanding they share shows brilliantly here. Fala Mariam plays alto trombone – like Miguel, she uses a mute on tracks one and two. Her instrument, in her hands, becomes an extension of herself – the control and sensitivity with which she adds colours and highlights to the set are breathtaking. Years of playing, creating and sharing music with Sei Miguel (her presence on his recordings, as well as that of César Burago, goes back to 1988) allow her to contribute a vital voice to these works that is so in sync with the leader that it sometimes seems as if the two players are of a single mind.
The electronic elements in the music presented here are added by Rafael Toral (also a guitarist, who has recorded with Sei Miguel since 1996), who has a catalogue of respected releases to his credit. He utilizes computer sinewaves (on track one), portable amplifier feedback (track two) and a modulated white noise system (track three) to balance the wind-borne organics from Miguel and Mariam. The sounds he creates are perfectly suited to the mood and structure of Miguel’s compositions – he never inappropriately overpowers the others with randomly generated noise, but adds his touches with taste and skill.
Completing the ensemble is the amazing percussionist César Burago – drawing from a surprisingly narrow ‘tool box’ (at least on this album), he calls forth an amazing array of sounds from seeds (track one), fiber (track two), tamborim + metals (track three), and dead radios (on both one and two). Swishes and whispers, rubbing sounds, seeming insect noises and other unidentifiable additions add a palpable sense of living movement to the mix.
If all of this sounds hard to imagine, I suppose that’s understandable – check out this video from YouTube of Miguel, Mariam, Burago and guitarist Manuel Mota (another frequent partner in Miguel’s creations), live at the Sonic Scope Festival in Lisbon in 2005…
A statement from Sei Miguel’s website gives a succinct description of his work: Sei Miguel is a jazz music director with innovative (and often strange) solutions. He deals with the full spectrum of sound, including frequent use of electronics. While playing trumpet with awareness of the whole Jazz history, he has nevertheless created his own musical system, allowing him to take open pieces to a remarkable state of precision. It’s pretty obvious that he has listened to and learned from the great players and composers of jazz who have come before him – Miles Davis and Sun Ra are no doubt influences in the direction he has taken – but he has taken their work as inspiration to go far beyond the boundaries that they (and others) pushed before them. His works, as those of most great jazz players (and those of other genres as well) might begin with improvisation, and he and his partners most assuredly employ it in performing – but make no mistake about it, this is not simply a series of random notes around an axis. These pieces are of great complexity and subtlety, woven like threads into a sonic tapestry of cosmic proportions – the group on this recording is a smaller ‘crew’ than Sun Ra employed on his interstellar voyages, but believe me, they get it done. Whereas Sun Ra created compositions and arrangements that bespoke density and evoked large-scale images of whirling planets and galaxies, Sei Miguel's approach might be more aptly likened to a more delicate representation of something like string theory, the microscopic structures and relationships between energies of the most basic, sub-microscopic level, which despite their almost unimaginable minuteness, are the foundations upon which everything else in the universe is built. That analogy might sound a little heady or far-fetched, but when you hear this music and allow it to enter your consciousness and touch you on the deepest levels, I think you'll see what I mean. Sei Miguel has some recordings available utilising a much larger ensemble – I can’t wait to hear them. For that matter, I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be snatching up anything I can find by him – I doubt seriously that I’ll wind up disappointed.
I’ve discovered some pretty amazing and exploratory trumpet players in the last few years who have opened my ears to new forms of sound and composition – Arve Henriksen, Cuong Vu, Markus Stockhausen. Now I can add Sei Miguel to that list.
some useful links:
Sei Miguel – official website
Creative Sources Recordings
Headlights Recordings – an independent label operated by guitarist Manuel Mota, featuring his work plus other interesting items, including a couple of older Sei Miguel releases (very reasonable prices which include shipping).
Mimaroglu Music – an affordable US source for mind-stretching music, including this release.