Sunday, December 6, 2009

Marky's song #19: DJ Spooky – "Optometry"

Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) really ought to go through his discography and put together an anthology. A double-CD package would be a great way to introduce him to newcomers as well as give fans an affordable condensed string of highlights. Actually, scratch that. Someone else should go through his discography and put together an anthology; I wouldn’t have faith in the artist himself to do it. As much as I love Spooky, he has not learned the fine art of how to self-edit.

Mind you, I have no reservations against recommending seeing him live. I once saw him put on a show in Cambridge, MA where he spun for almost three hours until they (literally) pulled the plug on him and turned on the venue lights. Take him out of the live setting, however, and he feels compelled to make the Big Artistic Statement and tends to get a little aimless piecing it all together.

Another example: I went to see his Rebirth of a Nation project, where he takes the film Birth of a Nation, chops it up into pieces and “remixes” it live with computer music backing. The music was great, but over two hours (never mind the original film is 190 minutes long) of seeing the same scenes over and over eventually lost its impact and I spent the last thirty minutes or so sitting there with my eyes closed.

This lack of focus becomes all the more maddening when he makes it click like this. “Optometry” comes from the album of the same name; it’s part of Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, an attempted merging of jazz and electronics. It’s kind of a typical Spooky-and-his-Rolodex affair, where the DJ brings in all sorts of musical guests to give him some raw material for him to remix and reshape. Unfortunately, sticking Daniel Bernard Roumain, Pauline Oliveros and William Parker in a room together to make music only winds up proving that Roumain, Oliveros and Parker don’t have enough common ground on which to make compelling music. But wait a minute – are they really in the room together? And does it matter? This isn’t meant to be a 'live in the studio' album, no matter how much they might try to market this as modern jazz. Perhaps I shouldn’t criticize based merely on preconceived notions of how certain types of music are supposed to be made. Spooky’s authenticity (whatever that’s worth) isn’t at risk here. Besides, when Spooky gives us tracks like this, it's easy to forgive all prior transgressions.

DJ Spooky - "Optometry"

So let’s get down with our analytical selves, shall we?

A funky opening bass line fades in and is greeted by a drum (Billy Martin) and violin (Roumain) improvisation. It sounds like they’re going to lose the groove right off the bat, but don’t worry, they stay on task. Martin shifts back into the beat and is joined by piano (Matthew Shipp) upright bass (Parker) and sax (Joe McPhee).

When Spooky drops the spoken sample: “We’re going to do, now, something that has nothing to do with an arranged piece of music,” he really begins to work his magic. Ambient effects and drum loops (played forwards and backwards) are the background for other members to solo over. Players weave in and out and Spooky even does a little record scratching here and there. But my favorite part is at the 8:43 mark – with everyone’s solo out of their system, a snare roll snaps it back to the opening beat and bass, which fades out almost as quickly as it was dropped in. I kind of wish he would let it play longer, but that simply ain’t the way DJ Spooky rolls. The last couple minutes are devoted to another Martin and Roumain improvisation.

Every DJ Spooky album is good for a handful of serendipitous moments like these. If you're willing to sift through them, any album is worth checking out. I don't ever expect him to have a moment of clarity and release a classic album with all the fat trimmed off; Spooky has his own M.O. and he's happy to plug away, testing his own theories. The rest of us are just spectators.


  1. Interesting composition. I haven't listened to Spooky since the mid 90s ("Songs of a Dead Dreamer" got spun a lot in my little car at college). Can't say that I love this bit of music - there are parts where it really clicks but then those are quickly eclipsed by more rambling improv. Don't tease me with a funky bass line and then masturbate all over it with your jazz improv!