One surefire way to know if your ears are trained to listen to European-derived music forms is to listen to microtonal music for even just a few seconds. If it strikes you as exotic and weird, then you are most attuned to Western style music, where microtones are so out of place it’s anathema, out of tune, just plain f’ed up.
Microtones, meaning small intervals between notes, are a part of music in many parts of the world, including Africa, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. Microtonal embellishments can be found in Hawaiian, Japanese music, and even in jazz, blues and rock (via the so-called “blue note“). You might not know it from a theoretical point of view, but you instantly know it when you hear it.
On these shores, David “Fuze” Fiuczynski is the guitar champ of microtonal music. He’s not one to try to bring it to the American microtonal deaf public by playing straight the music of foreign lands where microtones are commonplace; he performs a sort of ethnic fusion jam music that is already adventurous and experimental. Add those fretless microtones into the mix, and he has something that is truly unique.
Fuze has found fertile territory to explore in this strange world, with some of his first steps taken on his 1994 collaboration with John Medeski Lunar Crush, continuing into the 2000s with electric cellist Rufus Cappadocia in their exotic world fusion trio Kif. Fuze has also further delved into microtonal styles via his own band, the Screaming Headless Torsos, since the mid 90s. This former sideman to Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Hiromi’s Sonicbloom and Jack DeJohnette keeps refining and perfecting his peerless microtonal groove music. His latest installment in his quest to perfect the style is named Planet Microjam.
Fiuczynski has tossed microtonality and then damned near everything else within arm’s length into the pot for Planet Microjam. “Micro Emperor” (YouTube below) is a carnival ride though Beethoven, bluegrass, straight jazz, funk and even a Miles Davis “Jean Pierre” quote tossed in for good measure. The microtones turn what might have been simply a laid back groove on “Mystic Microjam” into a deliciously spooky laid back groove. David Radley’s violin, a naturally microtonal instrument, plays the perfect foil to Fuze on “Mystic” and elsewhere.
DeJohnette’s guest appearances on two tracks are hard to miss: for the quarter-tone “Meditacion,” based on a string quartet composition by the Mexican Julian Carrillo, he shows impeccable feel for the ever-changing pulse of the song. The 3/4 swing he provides on “Madoka Blue” grounds it, a song that Fiuczynski plays almost without a root; it resembles aliens playing mainstream jazz. Sun Ra’s “Sun Song” is converted into a meditative, Japanese folk vibe, and “Apprehension” veers and probes like a spontaneous jam, containing some of Fiuczynski’s most impressive fretwork — I mean — fretLESSwork of the album, with complementary microtonal keyboards courtesy of Takeru Yamazaki. “Horos Fuzivikos” is how I’d imagine a perfect union of what Moroccan melody and rock-jazz would sound like. “Green Lament” recalls Middle Eastern music, too, but the sparse sonic imprint makes it easier to appreciate Fuze’s detailed guitar articulations.
With such a deft alloy of so many inputs coming from so many different places musically, the microtones aren’t nearly the only thing that makes Planet Microjam such a peculiar record, but it’s the thing that ties it all together. You’re not likely to find another record out this year that rates so high on both the weirdness and artistic scales as this one.