A Place Meant for Birds
Musicians: Desert Sweets (Biggi Vinkeloe/Mark Weaver/Damon Smith)
Reviewed by Derek Taylor, Dusted Magazine
Houston-based bassist Damon Smith keeps a professional critic’s pace when it comes to the consumption of new improvised music by his peers and heroes. Rarely a day goes by on his Facebook feed without the posting of new acquisitions, often coupled with the kind of extreme cuisine choices that would make even the most seasoned cable TV shock gourmand balk at the prospect of ingestion (Pig snouts and rooster testicles represent recent selections). Along with these impressive appetites, Smith is fiercely protective of the musical heritage of which he is a part. Fail to do your homework or pontificate without proper context and you’re likely to justifiably earn his ire. Smith’s strong stances may be off-putting in their occasional stridency, but they are products of a genuine love of the music.
A Place Meant for Birds, released on Smith’s label Balance Point Acoustics, reveals another side of the bassist’s personality, his sense of humor. A cover painting by Delmas Howe depicts a cherubic vaquero that bears more than passing resemblance to Smith. Operating under the collective sobriquet of Desert Sweets, Swedish altoist Biggi Vinkeloe (also on flute) and tubaist Mark Weaver (doubling on digeridoo) joined him at Albuquerque’s Outpost performance space in March of 2013 for a gig that dates almost a dozen years from an earlier recording together. The trio’s instrumentation lends itself to the realization of broad dynamics with Vinkeloe frequently inhabiting the upper regions with a lilting, aqueous reed tone while Smith and Weaver plumb the lower depths through textured drones and multiphonics. “Vision is a Long Tumble” traces just such an itinerary, the interplay unfolding in measured bursts across seven minutes and change.
“White Bed” erupts in cascades, Smith going for maximum snap from his strings as his partners loose overlapping percolating streams. Here and elsewhere the intimate recording really enhances the detail, so much so that the clicks of Vinkeloe’s key pads are easily audible alongside her feathery phrasings. “Not Salt” teams Weaver’s digeridoo with Smith’s tree-felling bass, the deep glottal sounds of the former vibrating in harmonic confluence with the swelling rub board resonances of the latter. Vinkeloe’s warm alto lines suss out the sweet spot in-between. Even when Smith’s bowing turns abrasive and frantic the overarching ensemble sound stays oddly meditative and melodic. Acrobatic, knife-edged flute, booming pizzicato bass and subterranean tuba dance together on the sectional fifteen-minute “Silt”, turning from hand-in-glove harmonics to a finale steeped in rapid-fire expulsions and explosions.
Vinkeloe’s role as mellifluous counterweight to the comparatively somber musings of Smith and Weaver extends into “Embedded in Rock” as the latter two instruments frame dark shapes and coarse textures against which the former’s alto brushes and glides, turning from sweet to sour and back again while sustaining an engaging tonal contrast. Poet Lisa Gill takes the stage with the trio for a recitation of her “The Wind Has Taken My Breath”, her abstract verbal imagery signaling abstruse bursts from the instruments. “To Spill a Few Birds” summarizes much of what has transpired prior with another collective leap into an extemporized breach and Vinkeloe blowing forceful figures on flute that carry vaguely Native American sonorities. As a means of tying the performance to its desert venue birthplace it does the job with beautiful brevity.