RUSCONI – It’s a Sonic Life
There are not many rock bands that enjoy so much acceptance and respect among contemporary jazzmen as Sonic Youth. In the early 80's they emerged from the same pool of musicians as the Lounge Lizards, who had a similar impact on jazz to the effect Sonic Youth had on rock music. They changed our listening habits and perception of sound as hardly any other group did. Even people who have never heard of the four New Yorkers have been infiltrated by the band's achievements through the alternative mainstream of groups like Nirvana, Pavement or the Smashing Pumpkins. However, apart from their pioneering rock albums, Sonic Youth was always open for free improvisation and jazz. Either as a band or individually, the four musicians played with jazzmen such as the New York Art Quartet, Derek Bailey, William Hooker or Mats Gustafsson, to name but a few. Strangely enough, Sonic Youth's music has been adapted by jazz musicians far less often than the work of their 'pupils' Nirvana, for example. Maybe they are too complex in their own sound world for their songs to be easily translated into jazz. But it's never too late…
The Swiss trio RUSCONI approaches the mother of all 'noise rock' bands from an unusual angle. The obvious solution would be to translate Sonic Youth's two guitars into a broadside on the saxophones in order to produce a similarly energetic basis. But pianist Stefan Rusconi, bass-player Fabian Gisler and drummer Claudio Strüby are far removed from this: they approach Sonic Youth in the classic piano trio format. What seems unthinkable in theory actually works so well in practice, e.g. with the opener "Sunday", that you can't help wonder why no-one else tried it before. " Sonic Youth's music built up inside me over a period of years like a feeling", the pianist recalls. "Claudio und Fabian know the band, it's true, but they are not really familiar with the individual pieces. I selected about 30 songs that had a strong emotional meaning for me and burnt them on to a CD that I gave them. But at the same time I sketched out harmonies, grooves, bass lines and the like, which I then took into rehearsal with me. The result was something very natural. If the trio had consisted only of people like me who had spent the last 15 years listening intensively to Sonic Youth, our arrangements of the material wouldn't have been anywhere near as creative. As it was, in the rehearsals we concentrated completely on ourselves, and soon felt as if we were playing pieces that I had written specially for the band."
That sounds simple, but in practice things were more complicated. Even though the album is based on a uniform concept, RUSCONI managed to hit on an individual approach to each song. Thus some pieces function like cover versions, while others sound like a paraphrase of certain aspects of individual songs. Here, one point plays a significant role: although RUSCONI are certainly kindred spirits in terms of their aggressive search for tone colour, for example, they nonetheless have a totally different background from Sonic Youth. "The originals of many of the pieces were simply too slow", Stefan Rusconi says. "We don't have the extra amplification that a rock band has at its disposal, nor do we have a voice that can tell a story. Thus we had to find ways to avoid the boredom that may well arise when these songs are interpreted by three instrumentalists. One approach is to change the tempo or, as in the song 'Karen Revisited', which creeps very gradually into a mood, via improvisation. In the case of 'Sunday’ or 'Destroyed Room’, it seemed appropriate to turn the pieces into driving rock songs.
The band had already had some of the songs in its repertoire for years, one example being 'Theresa’s Soundworld', while others, such as 'Destroyed Room’, were put together in the studio in the space of half an hour. Thus for RUSCONI, too, the album represents a hinge between continuity and new departures. "We already had the band as a basis, so we were able to adapt new material pretty fast. The jazzy aspects are our contribution. When a Sonic Youth song features improvisation or free ideas, that makes complete sense to us. The main priority was that it had to feel good."
These days, it's fair to say, improvisation is by no means the exclusive preserve of jazz that it used to be. Since Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia at the latest, the maxims of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman have found their way into rock music as well. Sonic Youth are the best example of how this trend will go on. A song like 'Hits of Sunshine' from their album 'A Thousand Leaves', which RUSCONI likewise adapt into 'It’s a Sonic Life', sounds like Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme' translated into a new musical metaphor. Yet it's precisely this insight that affords RUSCONI very different approach paths to the world of Sonic Youth. "In the some songs", the pianist says, "we were able to adopt very specific elements from Sonic Youth. In other instances, it was just isolated features of the original that we incorporated in our version. Those tracks where we simply took over the mood, tone colours or the groove turned into completely different pieces in the end – pieces, however, where we can still see the original that we used as the basis for our own version."
But on 'It’s a Sonic Life' there are other parallels still that reveal themselves to the jazz lover. To McCoy Tyner, for example, who revolutionised jazz piano at the side of John Coltrane in the 1960's. RUSCONI internalise Sonic Youth's message in similar fashion to the way Tyner did with Coltrane. One need only think back to the trio albums that Tyner made in the sixties, or the grandiose record 'The Real McCoy', which the Swiss pianist also regards as an absolute milestone. The permanent flow of energy on that album, which releases incredible power even in the poetic passages and then seems in the very next instant to blow up the whole building, is also typical of RUSCONI. The slow ostinati and the energetic playing with linear themes that was characteristic of Tyner's work is also found on Sonic Youth records. RUSCONI didn't have Tyner specifically in mind when they recorded their new album, but the pianist admits: "In terms of his energy, Tyner is very close to me, much closer for instance than Bill Evans. Bud Powell is another jazz pianist who possesses this existentialist energy". Another point is that McCoy Tyner, too, went far beyond the confines of jazz in his heyday, creating a modal pop world based on improvisation. Stefan Rusconi finds this aspect particularly exciting: "When I play Sonic Youth, it doesn't matter whether it's pop or rock, classical music or jazz. It's only about two things, namely the energy and the emotions that I can convey. Our appearances in jazz clubs are becoming increasingly rare. The audience is sometimes a bit sceptical at the outset when a jazz group plays in a rock club, but when they notice that the music is really alive, then it clicks!"
RUSCONI didn't have any direct contact with Sonic Youth while they were working on the album. That was probably for the better, as it enabled them to maintain a certain distance. Besides, fond as they were of the noise rockers, not every song of the New York group lent itself to translation into the RUSCONI idiom. "Funnily enough", says Rusconi with a hint of amusement in his voice, "this applied to nearly all the pieces where Kim Gordon is the singer. I can't really say why. It simply didn't gel. Though personally, I find her songs really impressive. Maybe the reason was that her numbers are much punkier and more focused on the text. There's a lot more urgency, and more politics, in Kim's songs, whereas the Thurston Moore pieces are a lot more relaxed."
The album is rounded off by three pieces from RUSCONI's own pen. But these tracks, too, originated in themes, phrases, motifs or ideas from Sonic Youth, but which had moved so far away from their 'birthplace' that they can't really be traced back to Thurston Moore and Co. any more. Thus 'It's a Sonic Life' ended up as a complex declaration of love from a confident group of fellow musicians, albeit from a very different background. On its fourth album, the young Swiss trio has pulled off nothing short of a fascinating reappraisal of one of the most unusual musical oeuvres of the late 20th and the early 21st century.