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Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Reviews: Simon Little and Baiana System

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Simon Little - Mandala (ambient/ solo bass/ jazz)
self released, 2010, CD album, 55m 2s, £10
(also available as DD, £5)

One of the tracks on this album is titled ‘Ohm Is Where The Art Is’: it’s awfully tempting to run with that, and build a critical edifice around the idea of ‘ohm’ signifying a metaphorical sense of impedance or resistance, but to be honest, I’m pretty sure Simon Little’s artistic strategy is more straightforward than that. He doesn’t ask us to swallow anything that’s difficult to digest, or set out to challenge our ideas about music, but that’s not to say that his music isn’t experimental or progressive: it’s both.
Little builds up his grooves and soundscapes by layering loops of sounds he makes with his bass guitar: he plays a little phrase, sets it to repeat, and then plays something else on top of it, ultimately building up to full and complex orchestrations. That doesn’t mean it sounds like a lot of bass guitar: there are fully muted percussive sounds, EBowed and plucked harmonics, upper register improvisations, chords and double stops, and a sophisticated palette of audio processing, adding up to a varied set of orchestrated textures across a wide range of frequencies. All the tracks on the album have more or less the same homophonic texture, in which Little establishes an accompaniment and then improvises on it, usually tearing up the dusty end of his instrument to exhilarating effect.
Eberhard Weber’s live looping album Pendulum is cited as an influence on this work, and it is an audible one; but this is far from being an imitation, and Little’s sense of melody doesn’t bear much resemblance to Weber’s. At slow to medium tempos the clearest influence in his lyrically expressive phrasing is Stanley Clarke, who can also be heard in the sharp, prominent attack of much of his upper register tone. Little doesn’t seem to use the upper register to play lyrically; the middle register of the bass, like the cello, is particularly pleasing for such purposes, and it is exploited well on this album, but when he moves into the higher frequencies, for the most part his notes become more frequent as well.
There are some rapid fire technical pyrotechnics to be heard here. Little doesn’t play like a jazzer when he plays fast, but more like a blues rocker, although he doesn’t restrict himself to pentatonic materials. He basically grabs a selection of notes and wails on them, also developing a much wider and faster vibrato, which gives his sound a slightly helium fueled cast. 
His melodic materials are largely scalar, and eschew arpeggios, with a preponderance of minor modes. It’s an unavoidable limitation of live looping that it lends itself more to a modal approach, and virtually rules out extended phrasing in the harmonic rhythm, but Little makes a virtue of a necessity, and against its peaceful, spacious setting his rapid execution trills and chirrups like birdsong.
We hear a variety of responses to the harmonic restrictions of the context: on 'Light And Shade' he develops a melody using tenths, which sounds like a chord sequence in its own right, albeit a modal or diatonic one, and his subsequent, more free flowing improvisation superimposes some harmonic movements over a looped ground bass. More usually though, he plays what sounds like a modal melody with some chromaticism for colour.
Although everything on this album is ear pleasing, and presents itself to the listener in an accessible manner, its far from being ‘smooth’. You can hear Little probing at the contours of his chosen musical landscape, exploring the possibilities and mapping the territory: I’d go so far as to say this album sounds like first steps, but these are first steps on an interesting journey, from a player with a great deal of musicality and technique, so they sound anything but unfinished, or incompletely realised. They sound, like all good music, as though they have somewhere to go: music that sounds completely finished is usually in a creative dead end, in my view, but this leaves me, for all its own undeniable merits, wanting to hear where its author goes next.

BaianaSystem - BaianaSystem (Brazilian/ Guitarra Baiana)
2010, DD album, 53m 18s, $free

Guitarra Baiana is both a Brazilian musical style and an instrument: the instrument is a small solidbody electric guitar, derived from the cavaquinho, whose origins predate the American inventions of Leo Fender and Les Paul (although not the solid bodied Hawaiian guitar). The musical style was a 1950s instrumental genre, that used these guitars to play Frevo, the carnival music of Recife.
BaianaSystem uses two of these instruments in close harmony, and presents them in a decidedly anti-purist manner, with a sound that bears witness to its traditional foundation, but digs deep into other areas like reggae, dub and kuduro (1980s Angolan dance music). The instrumental texture employs bass and drum kit, and for the most part the guitarra baianas playing harmonised syncopated melodies, although a chord gets strummed occasionally, as when the reggae tunes require an offbeat skank.
The sound is a waterfall of beautiful, chromatically enhanced melody, played with a deep sense of groove to achieve that quintessentially Brazilian combination of shimmering tranquility with driving, inexorable danceability. And yes I know I come across like the ignoramus I am for saying that, but I hear some kind of a unifying character in all the Brazilian music I know: if someone could introduce me to some Brazilian music that is lumpen or rhythmically awkward I could ease up on the stereotyping…

The album is not all bass, drums and guitar, but incorporates some vocals, some synths, and some tastily employed processing; there are some particularly nice delays spreading the dub influence into tracks without an obvious reggae groove. The band is locked in tight, and hits its groove with a wonderfully light touch, never overcooking the beats or overplaying. The bass and percussion parts are excellently performed without drawing attention to themselves; it would be very hard to distract attention away from the guitar parts in any case, with their combination of flowing, harmonic narrative and breathtaking performance wizardry.
If you wanted to buy this band’s music, I wouldn’t be able to tell you where to go. I’ve done a bit of searching on the internet, but I haven’t found any CDs for sale, or been able to find out who their label is, though I strongly suspect they have one. If you follow the web address above you’ll find a link to a free download from a filesharing site, but that’s it. I can only surmise that they have distribution in Brazil and leave it at that, or that they sell CDs at gigs.
If I possibly could give this band some money for making this music then I would, because it’s exactly the sort of music I’d like to support: it really touches all the bases for me, by combining aesthetic accessibility, and a happy party mood, with an uncompromised artistic integrity, great musicianship and an experimental mindset. This is one of those rare albums that I think I could recommend to more or less anyone, despite my usual penchant for liking music that at least 50% of people will hate. I have to thank the excellent Oi! A Nova Música Brasileira! compilation for introducing me to this music, through the tune ‘O Carnaval Quem É Que Faz’ (also featured on this album), which remains a favourite for its trickily syncopated and furiously kinetic melody; but (unless you’re irredeemably miserable or stone dead) any one of the tracks included here should put a smile on your face and a wiggle in your butt.


  1. Baiana System's label is called "Garimpo"... will be releasing a 45 of "Oxe, Como Era Doce" internationally this summer as well as an EP of remixes...if you'd like more info on the group shoot me an email and i'll sort it out!

  2. Oliver,

    I'm really happy and proud to read this well written review about Baiana System. They're from my city in Brazil and could listen to its sounds since the beginning of the project. I brought some Baiana System cd's and advertisement in case of any opportunity help the guys come and play in the US. I'm living in Los Angeles.

    Keep up doing the good job.

  3. Thanks kiddid for the info, and thanks Magano for the kind words - and good luck getting Baiana System some gigs. I hope one day they'll tour the world and I can see them here in the UK too!

  4. Sharing the new video of the song "Jah Jah Revolta" by Baiana System: