Jim Matus’ Hadley studio is as impressive in its technological advancement as his musical engagement is the opposite—which is to say, his music is organic and often improvisational-sounding, and performed on a custom instrument he’s been perfecting his skills on for many years. Matus, whose dabblings in the realms of both instrumental jazz and psychedelic or spiritually-minded soundscape compositions, is well known in the regional music community from efforts with Mawwal, Paranoise, Impulse Ensemble, and other collaborations in jazz, experimental or world music.
Matus’ Hadley location and genial reputation tend to draw some of the more intense musicians down from the surrounding hills, providing means and impetus for some interesting collaborations. His latest release is just such a confederation with drummer and percussionist Doug Raneri, a longtime veteran of Valley rock, funk, jazz and Latin bands who’s known for constantly pushing the envelope of musical consciousness and passionately advocating for the evolution of rhythm and sound. The album, While Sleeping, Watch, sounds like a strictly live-in-the-studio duo performance, though it’s possible there are a few overdubs in the percussion department; Raneri (unless he’s hiding some kind of prehensile tail in his Carhartts) appears to only have two hands and two feet to employ as instruments. The result is a stripped-down recording, but one that holds on to a lot of its initial energy in the trade-off with not overproducing.
Google “laoutar,” and the first thing you’ll see are several entries for “Laoutar the Undying,” a hale and hearty-looking warrior who’s apparently prominent in the European World of Warcraft community of online adventure gaming. This is not the laoutar that concerns us. In this context, it’s actually a rare breed of instrument, rich in its natural “stereo chorus” sound thanks to redundantly tuned strings. Part 12-string guitar and part bass mandolin, the laoutar projects a full bottom end when played emphasizing chords, and also gives the ability to bend high melodic notes, sort of like a sitar. Derived from the traditional Greek laouto, which is akin to a lute or an oud, Matus’ semi-electrified guitar version looks bigger, louder and more comfortable to play.
In fact, on While Sleeping, Watch, it sounds more like the laoutar is playing Jim Matus. Finger-slides, pull-offs and percussive strumming patterns punctuate the underlying drone of open tunings like raindrops on wavy ocean, and in just the same way, this music is so cyclical in feel that it becomes hard to separate which part—the ocean or the rain, the drone or the fingers—is the protagonist, and which is the response or reaction.
Raneri’s drumming and percussion, though largely imbued with jazz, African, Latin and other “world music” influences, veers into rock-like beats at times, finding anxiety-driven, Stewart Copeland-style tempo-pushing or John Bonham pockets of solid groove that almost drag. It’s a cleverly executed slight bending of time that’s hard to get away with unless you’re really good at spreading the tempo difference out over a long stretch.
It’s the rhythmic side of the equation—which both Matus and Raneri contribute to—that kicks the whole project more into the realm of what some might call “fusion.” Matus has something of a pedigree as a Berklee alum and some guitar study under his belt with luminaries like Pat Metheny and John Scofield, and the chords and melodies he coaxes out of his undeniably exotic instrument also occasionally veer away from its more traditionally Mediterranean or Middle Eastern-rooted sound into something more jazzy or New Agey, at times into Michael Hedges or Mahavishnu Orchestra territory.
Track five, “Cloud Call Begins Now,” is perhaps both the most hypnotic/Eastern-flavored piece and simultaneously the darkest, most nail-biting composition—you can almost hear it as a film soundtrack for a scene in which James Bond is stalking a villain in a heart-pounding, life or death foot-race through some Syrian marketplace.
While Sleeping, Watch is an exercise in intuitive instrumental subtlety. Most listeners may only perceive its facial summation, but if you know who these two are and how long they’ve been at what they do, you can tell that they’re fiddling with microscopic details back behind the curtain. Minute alterations of physical dynamics like stick recoil or the temporal flexibility of employing 1/32 notes achieve something more akin to chemistry than art, a metaphor echoed by the CD cover’s 1595 painting by Dutch renaissance artist Hans Vredman de Vries, titled “Alchemist’s Laboratory.” In another sense, Matus and Raneri’s music is like the computer code behind digital animation or 3D design—98 percent of people will only see the creation in motion, but 2 percent will look into the rigging, the DNA or the metadata, and see where (for better or worse) the true intricacies of creativity flow. And seeing it may be a case of “if you have to ask, you’ll never know.” If (as a prodigious child reminded us in The Matrix), all you can see is a spoon, you’ve already trapped yourself—your mind will never be able to bend it.•
Matus & Raneri perform music from While Sleeping, Watch on Friday, May 31, 8 p.m., $10, The Arts Block, 289 Main St., Greenfield, (413) 774-0150, www.theartsblock.com.