Tobin Mueller is the man who never ceases to surprise and delight me equally. The reason why he continues to do so has much to do with where he comes from musically. Although the world of pop and rock pretends to be a place of adventure and exploration, the music found there is essentially very cliche and often wholly conservative, and that is because, as players and performers, many people in such scenes have relatively limited skills and reference points to call on. Hence, it is more of the same old, same old. A cornerstone of Tobin Mueller’s music-making is his love and training in jazz – and jazz is often a place where wild music made by disciplined and well-trained players.
So when he pushes those inclinations through a progressive landscape as he does on Volume 3 of his Best of…collection, the results are both startling and startlingly good. Strange sounds are summoned when the wild extremes of jazz wash over the more formal yet fantastic structures of prog. Sounds like those found on Escaping The Fray Zone.
With nearly ten minutes to spread out and get comfortable, explore and develop its musical themes, and gently evolve, Escaping The Fray Zone is a fluid and ever-changing piece. Driven by some beguiling angular rhythms, the piece moves forward in almost unbalanced increments, sometimes pushed forward by the backbeat, sometimes dragged on by the piano; often, the intricate bass lines will provide unexpected melodic energy, balancing the occasional constructive entropy that temporarily stops the piece in its tracks – a wailing guitar line or a left field piano flourish which comes out of the blue.
Sometimes, such changes in sonic direction are just small asides. Still, every now and again, these adjustments recast the whole piece, taking it off along unexpected musical tangents and on to new musical adventures. That is a genuinely progressive way to approach an instrumental, and as the piece moves through these various stages, it remains wholly reminiscent of what it has just passed through and yet is never quite the same again. If analogies are being looked for, it is like watching a flower grow from seed to blossom, clearly always the same entity but constantly changing.
And, as is often the case with Tobin’s music, he uses the title and the accompanying video as the key to explain his intentions. Here, the theme is one of anti-war sentiment, but more than that, it is the deploying of nuclear capability which he is drawing our attention to. But let us not forget that there is only one country that has used such weapons in anger, and if you are reading this, there is a high chance that you call that place home. The purpose here is not to point fingers and apportion specific blame, but calls for an end to the bellicose language of threats on each side the many ongoing conflicts and find better ways to live side by side on the political map.
If, as I suggested in the introduction, it takes disciplined players to make wild music, then it speaks volumes about Tobin’s talent and dedication to his musical path. The point of learning the rules is knowing which ones to break, when, why and in what order; anything less is just pointless anarchy, and the anarchists never had any of the good tunes, as far as I can recall.
Orchestrated, avant-gardening? That will do until we think of a more succinct term—answers on a postcard to the usual address.