Liner Notes: “Naked Movies”

The Coalition
Naked Movies

Naked Movies is the culmination of a search by four musicians on a mission to create something different, something wholly unique. Equally inspired by the energy and ideas coming from the techno and jam band scenes that have sprouted up in the past ten years, these seasoned New York players (aptly known as The Coalition) have drawn on their collective pop, rock and jazz roots to put together a new sound that defies easy categorization. A melange of goodfoot grooves, twisted tones, tweaked tracks and spiky jams, it may recall the most outre jam band experiments of Medeski, Martin & Wood while also alluding to the kind of collective improvisational groupthink that defined the earliest edition of Weather Report.
The band name itself implies full cooperation between all the participants, a coming together of ideas and attitudes about how to make music. Indeed, everybody did bring something unique to the table to make Naked Movies as innovative and outrageous and happening as it is.
“We were specifically trying to break away from the old jazz head concept of ‘Let’s play the melody, you solo, I’ll solo, let’s go back to the melody and then take it out,” says The Coalition guitarist Glenn Alexander. “So we worked hard to make it different and I definitely do think we came up with some other stuff. As a matter of fact, I don’t know exactly what it is, but I think we’re all very pleased with the way it came out.”
“It’s a wild record,” adds drummer Shawn Pelton. “We were really trying to push some boundaries with it as far as trying to integrate the whole programming thing that has come about in the last 10 years. So we ended up with a lot of wild textures integrated with live playing and hopefully it brings something a little different to the table.”
Six years ago when they formed, The Coalition sounded a whole lot different than they do on this audacious debut. That was before they became determined to withdraw from the fusion sweepstakes, do away with the gratuitous displays of chops (fiery, blistering or otherwise) and go for an overall band concept that pushed the envelope in innumerably hip and adventurous ways. And the process that The Coalition ultimately hit on is as personal as it is provocative.
Somewhere along the way — and this is a key to their becoming born-again sonic provocateurs — the members of The Coalition began to embrace technology and make it sound organic. “I have to give Shawn major tech credit,” says keyboardist, conceptualist and principal composer Scott Healy, “since it was he who kicked our asses and basically said, ‘Why don’t we use some of this great technology we have and do something different?’” From that point, Pelton and Healy were both in the driver’s seat on the tech side of things, engaging in a true digital collaboration throughout the process of putting together Naked Movies. “It was quite a successful meeting of computers,” says Healy. “We got a whole new work flow going that we didn’t have before.”
And in the process they left their fusion roots behind. Rather than just burning their way through tricky stop-time heads just to get to the solo sections and then unleashing flurries of dazzling sextuplets and sizzling 16th notes, they began to put a premium on space, breath, texture, tones…SOUND. Guitarist Alexander put his formidable fusion licks on the shelf in favor of a more restrained, team player approach. Keyboardist Healy began dredging up different sounds on his Farfisa organ and Fender Rhodes electric piano, feeding them through vintage phase shifters and wah-wah pedals while also reaching inside the guts of the Rhodes to manually manipulate the tines to creative effect. And bassist Michael Merritt — suddenly freed up from strict timekeeping duties by the sheer density of groove happening underneath — began digging deeper, sometimes playing more minimally, sometimes more contrapuntally, depending on what was swirling around him at any given moment.
Healy immediately latched onto this fresh vibe by writing a whole batch of new tunes for the band. Alexander, a Kansas native who already has five records to his credit, says that Healy’s new material was particularly challenging for him. “It’s almost a Dixieland concept, where people are playing and soloing simultaneously. It required us to play more openly, just jamming and letting things unfold and go where they might. It was interactiveness to the point where it was difficult for me because my thing and where I come out of is the fusion world, which we specifically tried not to do. I come from a player’s perspective of ‘Let’s hit and dig in and solo!’ But Shawn just didn’t want to go there. He’d say, ‘Do we have to do the Allan Holdsworth thing? It’s been done.’”
Healy and Alexander have had a working relationship that goes back to the mid ‘80s. “I played on Glenn’s first album (1987’s Glenn Alexander on Chase Records) and I produced his second album (1993’s Rainbow’s Revenge on Shanachie Records). What we’re doing with The Coalition is a lot less fusiony, a lot less melodic and a lot less solo-driven. It’s a little bit more edgy and a lot more dissonant, and certainly a lot less guitar-driven.”
Healy and bassist Merritt have been playing together since 1993 on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” as charter members of the Max Weinberg 7. Drummer Pelton, a regular on “Saturday Night Live” as well as a sought-after session man for pop and rock recordings, turned out to be the wild card of the bunch, bringing his techno savvy to the table on this session.
Naked Movies opens with the hard-hitting groover “Tuna Whiskey,”fueled by slamming live drums and deep basslines. “I know it sounds like loops,” says Healy, “but that is one of the few tunes on the cd that is all live playing from top to bottom. We processed the drum sound in the mix to give the breakbeat sound then popped it out for the free sections, lending contrasts. It’s all real time, organic stuff. No loops whatsoever.” Healy leans heavily on the wah-wah pedal here and Alexander dips just a bit into guitar hero mode, erupting in Holdsworthian fashion on the fretboard while Merritt solos sparsely and effectively on the open-ended rubato sections that fly in and out of the mix. The title track, based on a simple, repeating Farfisa organ riff, is enhanced by Pelton’s dub style effects and loops and by Merritt’s contrapuntal basslines. This experimental soundscape also features some spacey slide guitar by Alexander that leaves one with the lasting impression of The Allman Brothers in the desert on peyote.
“The Loungy One” is Healy’s slowed down, cooled out acid-jazz contribution. With strong allusions to Billy Cobham’s classic “Spectrum,” it’s fueled by a popping, post-hip-hop beat and features Scott on wah-wah inflected Rhodes with Glenn shadowing him on mellow guitar unisons. Merritt’s tune, “33,” is an intricate mesh of interlocking cross rhythms that may recall Steve Coleman’s M-Base system but in fact borrows from a system created in the 1960s by his father, former Jazz Messenger bassist and Lee Morgan sideman Jymie Merritt. “I wanted this tune to reflect what that sound meant to me when I was in my early teens. It’s my way of shedding a little bit of light on what my father was doing with his own original music and how that whole thing rubbed off on me.”
Alexander’s “Beatnik Bob” is a film noirish piece that develops slowly and ominously like The Doors’ “Riders On The Storm.” Healy’s sparse Rhodes solo and dramatic use of space adds to the ambient mood here while “Coke” is a revved up romp that sounds like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dick Dale sparring in a jam band. Healy’s lovely ballad “Word from Ulster County” is the most traditional jazz chart of the bunch. With its bluesy, laid back, Hoagy Carmichael-esque feel underscored by Pelton’s light brushwork and Scott’s soul-jazz Rhodes work, this piece provides an easy change of pace from all the loopology and urgent techno jams heard elsewhere on Naked Movies.
The collection closes with perhaps the most complex and sonically dense number of the whole bunch. “Drum Sandwich” is basically a Frankenstein construction patched together from pre-existing tracks recorded four years ago that were then channeled through Healy’s computer for radical sonic tweakage. “It’s a full remix of an old tune,” Scott explains. “Shawn contributed some sound effects then I used Reason and Live software to regenerate all the grooves and sounds for that piece. Shawn then overdubbed some more loops before the session but the other cats didn’t even hear it until it was almost done. That way, they could react and improvise to it with a fresh vibe.” Pelton plays live drums along with the remixes, creating a thick dual-drummer foundation that somehow filters the Allman Brothers through a Fela Kuti sensibility while Alexander layers on some evocative slide guitar to add a non-tempered, Indian-sounding quality to the proceedings.
Call it avant groove, post-jam band, organic techno-jazz-fusion or call it whatchuwanna, the resulting sound is as unprecedented as it is provocative. In a world of vacuum-packed sampled sounds and clone bands galore, retro-this, neo-that and same ol’ same ol’, Naked Movies can truly be called fresh and original. — Bill Milkowski

Bill Milkowski, a regular contributor to Jazz Times and Jazziz magazines, was recently named Writer of the Year for 2004 by the Jazz Journalists Association. He is also the author of “JACO: The Extraordinary And Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius” (Backbeat Books).