Unbound by Genre, Deerhoof and Wadada Leo Smith Work Wonders

Without being hyperbolic, Deerhoof is one of the hardest working bands in the business. In the past five years, Deerhoof has released five proper studio albums on top of the mammoth discography they’ve already accumulated (Discogs has 79 individual entries on the band). Fans of the band can reasonably assume that they’ll be able to see them live in just about every major city in the U.S. at least once a year. So we could of course expect that in the middle of quarantine, Deerhoof would find a way to release two albums: June’s fantastic Future Teenage Cave Artists and July’s collaboration with composer, improviser, and Pulitzer finalist Wadada Leo Smith, To Be Surrounded By Beautiful Curious Breathing Laughing Flesh Is Enough (both via Joyful Noise Recordings).

To Be Surrounded was recorded live with Smith at New York’s Winter Jazzfest at Le Poisson Rouge, with 100% of the proceeds from the album going to Black Lives Matter. This should also be considered a shoutout to Le Poisson Rouge, a great venue where concertgoers can see exciting free jazz (not free admission!), contemporary classical music, and cutting edge punk gigs.

Deerhoof performs at the 2017 Big Ears Festival--Photo by Cora Wagoner Photography

Deerhoof performs at the 2017 Big Ears Festival–Photo by Cora Wagoner Photography

For the uninitiated, Deerhoof’s music is grounded in a version of indie-punk that features angular guitar work that often switches between traditional pop rock songwriting and avant garde, rhythmically complex noise a la John Zorn. All of this works in conjunction with vocals provided by Satomi Matsuzaki, whose style is totally devoid of vibrato. Punk is traditionally a music of confrontation, which makes Matsuzaki’s expressive vocals–entirely non-confrontational in their delivery–a foreign element that can be hard to place. Her voice is proficient without being showy, and subdued without sacrificing anything to another instrument. In short, Matsuzaki’s vocals are often treated as an equal instrumental texture as opposed to the main attraction.

To Be Surrounded starts with six songs recorded without Smith. The first track, “Believe E.S.P.” from 2007’s Friend Opportunity, starts with a groovy drum beat offset with guitar lines that are somewhere in this gray area between metal and avant garde. This is immediately followed by “Chandelier Searchlight” from 2009’s Offend Maggie, which starts with a jagged, free jazz-style improvisation before the song really kicks in. 

What makes Deerhoof such a formidable band both on stage and in the studio is the energy and cohesiveness that they bring to music that is both complex and multi-genre, which is why a collaborator like Wadada Leo Smith–whose own work is equally unbound by genre–is such a natural choice. The quintet perform so well together that listeners have to wonder how this collaboration hasn’t happened sooner. The five tracks with Smith are primarily played as they appear in their original studio versions, but they give Smith space to improvise and sometimes take on their own form as the group improvises together.

Wadada Leo Smith

Composer/Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith (courtesy of wadadaleosmith.com)

The most successful of the bunch are “Breakup Songs” and “Flower,” the texture of both could have been from a Smith composition to begin with. None of the music on this half of the album really features Smith in the traditional sense–this is still a Deerhoof album with Smith commenting and supporting throughout. Of course, Smith is an expert improviser and adds a dimension to the music that fans of the band don’t get to hear too often. That being said, one has to wonder what an extended collaboration between Deerhoof and Smith might yield. There’s a beautiful moment in “Last Fad” immediately after a drum solo where Smith falls into a melody that both compliments and responds to Matsuzaki’s vocal line, and then devolves into a free improvisation. The vast majority of this collaboration works wonders, and one only has to wonder how we can get this to happen again.

To Be Surrounded By Beautiful Curious Breathing Laughing Flesh Is Enough is an obvious recommendation for those who are already fans of either Deerhoof or Wadada Leo Smith. A work like this has the power to introduce fans of either artist to an entirely new world of music making, but at the same time, something like To Be Surrounded may be a little too jagged/rock-oriented for the typical listener of both contemporary classical and improvised music. Although, a successful collaboration like this really calls into question why bands like Deerhoof (or Matthew Friedberger, or anything on Constellation Records, and the list goes on and on) aren’t more welcome into the contemporary classical music scene. Deerhoof and Wadada Leo Smith make a better case for the inclusion of experimental rock groups in the new music canon than say, Caroline Shaw working with Kanye West, or Aaron Dessner orchestrating for Taylor Swift–all of which are great and interesting collaborations, but not genre-inclusive in the same way. Questions of venue and presentation are important factors, but as more artists seek experimentations and collaborations that break the traditional boundaries of genre, this kind of fearless and exciting music making will be hard to ignore.