Alex Paxton: Music for Bosch People

Saturday 15 May 2021

The word ‘manic’ pops up twice in the press release for Alex Paxton’s album Music for Bosch People. ‘Garish’ should be used too, meant as a positive; it should come as no surprise from the cover art that this music is played by an amplified ensemble with saxophone, electric guitars, drum kit and samplers bouncing around Paxton’s trombone. The bright, clashing colours and patterns in the packaging threaten the listener with a “fun” experience, which too often means music that is at once hectoring and ingratiating. Paxton and his crack team of musicians thankfully avoid this for the most part.

I got the download version of this, with the tracks tagged as ‘Jazz’, so I had to strip those tags out before listening so I wasn’t too prejudiced against it. The album falls into two halves: the long title piece, with a mani-… let’s say frantic solo coda of Paxton vocalising on trombone, and a suite of “Prayers”. The musical idiom throughout is good old-fashioned New York Downtown free improv: constant activity, frenetic and eclectic. TV and movie samples break out amongst the music, like listening to alternative radio in 1990. Is this an exercise in retro pastiche? The remarkable thing here is that Paxton has composed this densely-packed free-for-all, while allowing the musicians scope for improvisation. The advantage is that the momentum and inspiration never flags; the disadvantage is that it never soars to any exhilarating highs, either. For all its wildness, the music tries its best to stay likeable and so remains harmless, never acquiring even the undercurrent of casual menace that makes this kind of playing come alive for the listener. Heard in the wrong frame of mind, parts of the long track come across like attempted humour, stiff and forced.

Given Paxton’s and the ensembles adeptness with the established techniques and technology, he seems strangely reluctant to use it to say anything new – hence the impression of pastiche. The second half of the album is stronger, as he uses his devices in a new and more interesting way. These five short tracks were made by Paxton using cheap MIDI keyboards, improvisation and multitracking as compositional devices, building up layers of improvised solos and then transcribing them into notated arrangements for ensemble. Everything is much more fluid in these pieces, with fleeting gestures and soundbites appearing and disappearing with greater independence and mutual indifference, thus sounding with greater spontaneity. It allows a track titled “Prayer with Strings and Joan Rivers” to be crude and witty without needing to slap you on the back. Even as these tracks are less dense, the musicians can create more connections between the sounds and present the listener with a more complex experience than the title piece.