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Djam Karet Side Projects: Henderson/Oken and Hillmen

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HENDERSON/OKEN: Dream Theory in the IE (CD on Firepool Records)

This release from 2011 offers 76 minutes of bewitching music.

Mike Henderson plays 12 string acoustic and electric guitar, lap steel guitar, analog and digital synthesizers, effects and loops. Chuck Oken, Jr. plays synthesized electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards and sequencing, digital drums and percussion, effects, loops, and live sampling and treatments. Both are members of Djam Karet.

A plethora of stringed instruments, keyboards, rhythms, and applied effects creates a lavish dose of dreamy tuneage.

(For the novice, the region on the outskirts of Los Angeles is a land that comes before Coachella, Joshua Tree, and the Salton Sea. This is the opposite of Topanga, as this is Inside Land where the maps of the soul are drawn in the suburbs, malls, and bedrooms of your lives. This geographic region is the IE--the Inland Empire.)

It's hard to describe the guitarwork here, for so bountiful are the treatments that the bent notes cascade like sounds from an extraterrestrial zoo. There are still some chords that are recognizably guitar-generated, though. And they all fuse together to present tuneage of mesmerizing definition.

As it is, the keyboards and electronics often get lost in the delightful guitar pyrotechnics, where their influence supports from an immersed vantage. But fear not, there are passages in which the weirdness is definitely electronic and quite fascinating.

The are rhythms, but they rarely adopt any traditional manifestation, appearing as enhancements and erratic punctuations. There are occasions, however, where drums belt out a dynamic propulsion.

All of which makes it sound as if this music is a miasma of bewildering chaos--but that's definitely an erroneous assumption. The music is fluid, dreamy and quite haunting. The compositions are designed to softly dazzle the listener's psyche, rendering consciousness into a state that gets sucked into the tunes.

Stepping back from any detailed analysis, this album is a dynamite winner, guaranteed to astound fans of guitar and/or electronic tuneage. It may not pummel the ears like Djam Karet's gutsy music, but it will make you go "Wow!" with satisfaction.

And here's the surprise punchline: the music was spontaneously improvised in a series of live shows which were then culled down to fit on this CD. No overdubs or edits were involved.

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HILLMEN: The Whiskey Mountain Sessions (CD on Firepool Records)

This release from 2011 offers 43 minutes of modern jazz music.

Hillmen are: Peter Hillman (on drums), Gayle Ellett (from Djam Karet) (on organ and electric piano), Mike Murray (from Djam Karet) (on guitars), and Ralph Rivers (on bass on two tracks). Joining them on a few tracks are: Steve Re (on bass) and Brian Carter (on acoustic piano).

This improv music applies a modern approach to cafe style jazz.

The first track captures a relaxed tension with droney organ, slow jazz percussion, meandering slide guitar blending with guitar effects, and gentle basslines. The tune flows without any pinnacle, pursuing a languid course replete with the inventive interaction of the instruments.

The next piece (the longest on the album at sixteen minutes) continues to delve into a laid-back jazz motif. Each instrument delivers a soothing dose of fluid resonance backed by subdued but steadfast drums. The keyboards slide out tasty chords in a retro fashion, while the bass provides a thumping undercurrent. As the song progresses, the guitar escalates from restrained noodling to some blazing riffs. The interplay between the keys and the guitar establishes an enticing nucleus that gradually builds to a satisfying crescendo.

The following track injects a certain urgency to the album, as the guitar adopts a more pronounced presence and delivers some delicious jamming. Here, the rest of the instruments strive to support without overwhelming things. The keys possess an appealing twinkle.

With the last piece the music gets a little more energetic. Fingers dance across the keys, generating sparkling melodies. The guitar gets funky, and the enlivened percussion provides a bouncy set of rhythms.

While no instrument dominates this tuneage, the slippery keyboards evoke a classic fusion mood that is counterbalanced by the old school influence of the drums as they maintain constant rhythms that are well defined yet unobtrusive. The rambling guitar (with occasions of lead riffs) nicely links the past and present of improv jazz.

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