Stoning Out with Lou Reed

Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, John Zorn — The Stone, Issue Three (Tzadik, 2008)

Everybody loves Lou Reed, sure.  But how would he be as an improviser?

I know, I know, he did Metal Machine Music.  He also hung out in the right parts of NYC in the right decades to be tuned into things like Philip Glass music and the old Knitting Factory.  He’s done interesting non-rock projects lately, like the ambient Metal Machine Trio. But how would he fare in a free improv context?

The third benefit CD for The Stone, John Zorn’s spare and elegant not-for-profit music space on the Lower East Side, documents an improvised set from Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and Zorn.  And I’m picking on Reed just because of his rock reputation — although Anderson, come to think of it, is better known for her voice, her composing, and her performance than for her violin playing.

I’m actually being disingenuous here — I was pretty excited about this CD and didn’t have any doubts that it would be good.  But at the same time, I didn’t expect to hear the usual, Euro-modeled free improvisation.

Reed’s playing here lacks the fleetness of a Derek Bailey or a Henry Kaiser.  He’s not crafting new language or splaying dizzying runs of notes, and that’s fine. He’s relying on conventional techniques with unconventional choices of notes and chords.  Heavy distortion/fuzz comes into play too, for that good Metal Machine backdrop.

Rhythmically, he gets into short periods of march-like strumming, a bit of rock influence, but he never wants that phase to “stick.”  Rather, he’s tossing it out there as an element of his own vocabulary, a short phrase that’s part of a longer paragraph. It works, as the music falls into and out of small rhythms.

Reed plays solo to start the first of three long pieces, and he shows off a lot of what’s to come from him: Quiet, sinewy lines, alongside brief rocking-out phases.

Zorn actually responds in kind.  His first entrance on sax is just a blare at first but then dips into a rollicking bluesy motif (that’s how you can tell this is high art; I use words like “motif”) backed by a guitar buzz that develops into a crunchy rhythm.

It’s different — and shouldn’t that be the point of improvisation?  Reed doesn’t go immediately for the white-noise bluster that Pat Metheny couldn’t resist on The Sign of Four, his ear-splitting 3-CD set with Derek Bailey.  (I liked that album, by the way.) But he and Zorn get there soon enough, turning their duet moment into a screamfest.

The 13-minute second track gets even noisier. Anderson and Reed put up a glorious, shimmering wall of sound against Zorn’s rhythmic, tuneful sax ostinato. That collapses into an all-out attack from the three, Reed digging hard on guitar whil Zorn, well Zorns out on sax.

I’m giving Laurie Anderson short shrift here, but she adds some terrific work.  Sometimes it’s in the form of subtle electronics or synths in the background — she’s the shimmer in that wall-of-sound segment — but she’s also got several moments of splashy violin playing, beefed up by electronics for a doubled-up sound.

On the third track (the last and quietest), Anderson shows off a more “regular” violin sound that includes Glass-like arpeggios and light, glowing lines. It’s a nice antidote to the bombast of the prior track — but it develops into dark menace soon enough.

Overall, it’s a loud and crunchy performance, often unsubtle, but it’s fun. And your money goes straight towards paying expenses for The Stone, which operates entirely on donations.