New Ghost - Live Upstairs at Nick's [ESP-Disk, 2006]


Once upon a time, many Moon Units ago, Frank Zappa said that " Jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny". For the sake of this review I'm going to modify and paraphrase that quote to " Free-Jazz isn't dead, it just smells like mustard gas and burning flesh". Listening to free-jazz, for me, is an exercise in perseverance and discipline, sort of like boot camp for the ears. Let me put it another way: if the A.T.F and F.B.I. had really wanted to get The Branch Davidians out of their compound in Waco, Texas, they shouldn't have been blaring Metallica out of those loud speakers (David Koresh wasn't just a cult leader, he was also a rock guitarist) they should have been blasting free-jazz. Similarly, if the C.I.A. really wanted to extract useful information from the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay they wouldn't be using water-boarding, they'd be using free-jazz.

Having said all that, New Ghost: Live Upstairs At Nicks, by Elliot Levin makes the experience of tackling free-jazz a little bit more listener-friendly. It's almost as though Elliot and his gang of mirthful musical miscreants took Gong, Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and a smattering of Sun Ra, threw it into a blender and this cornucopia of cacophony is what poured out of them. The musical themes they use to set up their improvisations often have a rather Gong-like quality to them, especially the tunes which begin with Levin's flute playing, before the whole band explode into bizarro Beefheart meets Sun Ra Free-Jazzery, which I paradoxically find unpleasantly pleasant. Or pleasantly unpleasant, whichever you prefer.

Not only does Elliot Levin play the flute, he also plays the musette, soprano and tenor saxophone, and on top of all that he also breaks out with crazed poetry throughout the album, sounding like a combination of Jello Biafra, Snagglepuss and Bill Murray's character in Caddyshack. Personally speaking, I have no idea what the fuck he's talking about, but I really like his voice.

My favorite tune on the album is Sunnyland. I pictured some dude (or dudette) strolling up the street, chest puffed out like a cartoon character, smile beaming from ear to ear, with his arms swinging exaggeratedly back and forth, happy as a fly in feces and cool as the proverbial cucumber, enjoying life just as it is. There could be dead birds falling out of an ominous dark green sky, buildings engulfed in fire and smoke, sirens squealing and people screaming, cars running off of bridges and a swarm of flying locusts with scorpion tails and human heads descending from the darkened clouds, stone-facedly ready to dole out extreme punishments to all those without the Mark of God...and this person would just keep on trucking, happily oblivious to the carnage all around him.

Elliot Levin and the rest of the band play with weight and fury on New Ghost, like a Free-Jazz freak-out version of Suicidal Tendencies. Never mind Heavy Metal, Free Jazz is the Devils music kids. Jack Chick, take note, you've been barking up the wrong musical tree for years.

Joe Pickell

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New Ghost - Live Upstairs at Nick's