CD REVIEW Digital Primitives: Playing ‘Out’ with a Compass

Latest Album ‘Hum, Crackle & Pop’ a Return to Roots for Free Jazz

Digital Primitives

Hum, Crackle & Pop

Produced by Assif Tsahar

Hopscotch Records

September 22, 2009

The world of free jazz can be a harsh place, a radical, norm-destroying battleground, with the players, in their attempt to create something original, spending a lot of time focusing on tearing down the old. All that chopping and carving and shaping can turn a collaboration into a pile of dust if you aren’t careful. The solution: focus on the basics.

Enter Digital Primitives. They might be a new strain of avant-soul; mixing the Southern gospel rootsiness of Cooper Moore, playing off the Dolphyesque wails of Assif Tsahar, all laid over the minimalist syncopated textures of percussionist Chad Taylor, the Digital Primitives represent a new, interesting force on the New York free jazz scene. They use a bit more space than a lot of other groups, but do so without losing any of their drive. True to their name, they are fresh, exact, analytical, and born of the internet age, while still tied to more primal jazz/blues roots. It’s free jazz grounded in soul.

Their sound is inherently minimalist. The high level of space, compared to a lot of other noise on the scene today, affords each player a lot of individuality, and space to flaunt their own background and sound. Take vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/quasi-frontman Cooper Moore. Raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia amid the latter half of the Jim Crow era, his playing (and singing — he intones a jazz-sermon in “The Sermon” questioning, then affirming the people’s rights) carries a from-the-pulpit feel, an empowered, unrushed drone. Throughout the album, Moore uses more than a few instruments, including the diddly-bo and mouthbow, both traditional, if rare, centerpieces of Appalachian blues, both built by Moore himself (Moore is known for constructing many of his own instruments; he is quoted in the Jerusalem Post as saying “I have taken stuff out [sic] a dumpster to make an instrument which I have used at gigs”). He’s a bastion of simple, self-sufficient bluesiness amid a jazz scene that too easily becomes absorbed with displays of chops, where young virtuosos are all brought up with expensive horns, and rising stars expect their instruments to be custom. Cooper Moore has paid his dues with the blues, and as such his free playing is less pretentious, more honest than other young guys who might be more “technically” brilliant (whatever that means). Jazz is, or should be, more than an exercise in sonic permutation, and Cooper Moore reminds us of that.

That being said, a lot of Moore’s work wouldn’t mean that much without Tsahar, Moore’s frequent collaborator over the past two decades. Assif Tsahar, moving to New York City in 1990 from Israel to play on the jazz scene there, brings in a sensitive aspect to the album. His tone is moderate, constrained, while still exploring the more bizarre tonalities expressible on a sax or clarinet. He plays out, but texturally. It’s exotic, and his non-American background seems to color the music in a way that American players couldn’t.

The ensemble is rounded out by Chad Taylor on drums, a player with a funky groove, at times reminiscent of Billy Martin (from Medeski, Martin and Wood).

Together, the Digital Primitives are a hot new sound and a welcome burst of energy into the ever-evolving world of free jazz.