Tied & Tickled Trio: Observing Systems
Those already familiar with the band will know that the Tied & Tickled Trio name is a misnomer, considering the larger number of members that actually comprises this instrumental collective, originally formed in 1994 in Weilheim, Bavaria. Tenor saxophonist Johannes Enders, Andreas Gerth, and the brothers Acher are four core members, but how the latter find time and energy for this project is incredible, as Micha and Martin are members of Ms. John Soda and Lali Puna, respectively, as well as joint members of The Notwist. Even more impressive is the fact that Observing Systems, the Tied & Tickled Trio's third full-length, is no slapdash affair but a thoroughly composed travelogue through fifteen tracks that clocks in at just under an hour. It's a striking departure for Morr Music, given its recent focus upon an accessible song-based genre, as Observing Systems is a collection whose electronica, dub, and blues styles constellate around a central core of ‘60s jazz. Not content to limit itself to Coltrane- and Mingus-inspired forms, the band boldly moves in and out of other genres with ease, making for an engaging journey. It's a satisfying hybrid between jazz and electronics that will appeal to fans of other similarly expansive bands like the Cinematic Orchestra, Flanger, Isotope 217, and Jaga Jazzist.
More specifically, the fifteen tracks generally align themselves into distinct groupings: brief electronic interludes, jazz-blues workouts, and electronic jazz-funk. The four “Radio…” pieces—brief tracks in the one- to three-minute range—function as experimental electronic interludes between the longer, more representative cuts. “Radio Sun 2,” for example, is an ambient fragment whose plucked pizzicato strings and looping melodic cell calls to mind Ekkehard Ehlers' Betrieb , whereas “Radio Sun 3” is comprised of glitch-ridden washes. The longest in this series is “Radio Jovian,” an industrial interlude of scrapings and crackles which changes character with the addition of melancholy piano and horn melodies. In the electrofunk category, “Revolution” features a deep bass, dubby background effects, and layers of scratchy electronic syncopations, overlaid by a jazzy bass clarinet solo. The two least satisfying pieces on the recording are the brief “Ship Monk,” whose heavy beat, electronics, and brooding piano theme fail to develop, and “‘Motorik,” an extended funk groove that also doesn't develop much, and is ultimately less convincing in spite of its impassioned tenor sax squeals.
The jazz-blues pieces are the strongest and fortunately dominate the recording. “The Long Tomorrow,” a wailing, bluesy Mingus-style composition with Coltranesque sax blowing, kicks things off robustly. After a quiet intro where the interweaving trombone and sax establish the melancholy theme, the full band of drums, piano, congas, bass clarinet, trombone, and tenor sax aggressively joins in. It's a superb example of acoustic jazz ensemble playing and lovely multi-horn arranging. (Of course, jazz aficionados will be reminded of Bennie Maupin and Eric Dolphy whenever that bass clarinet takes centre stage.) Slightly different from this is “Freakmachine,” jazz-funk with a rhythm and blues edge. Here congas and a heavy funk drumbeat lay the foundation for a dark Blue Note-style jazz theme stated by sax and trombone that further exemplifies gorgeous ensemble playing. On the heels of a serpentine bass clarinet solo, the piece ends with sax, trombone, and clarinet wailing against a massive brew of drums, congas, and bass. Not all tracks are up-tempo, of course. “Memory Dub” uses piano, flute, and congas to create an exotic Eastern mood, while the final cut, “Henry + the Ghosts,” brings things to a lovely jazz-blues close with its beautiful interweaving melody lines for flute, trombone, and horn ensemble supported nicely by bass.
Observing Systems impresses as a rich amalgam of jazz, blues, funk, and electronica that presumably draws some of its strengths from the diverse backgrounds of its players. Aside from the stylistic and instrumental variety that maintains interest throughout, what impresses most of all is that, while the longer, jazzier tracks have a refreshingly live, raw feel, this hardly implies that the musicians showed up and merely recorded their improvisations. On the contrary, unlike so many jazz groups where a collective head is played followed by individual solos before quoting the head a final time, the group here creates full-fledged compositions with themes played by ensemble groupings of sax, trombone, and bass clarinet behind a given soloist. Whether by accident or design (and more likely the former), the Tied & Tickled Trio carries on the Ellington tradition, perpetuated in subsequent decades by the likes of Carla Bley and Henry Threadgill, of placing equal emphasis upon compositional development and arranging in addition to the quality of the soloing.