Ka Baird, ‘Sapropelic Pycnic’

Posted by on October 19, 2017


Drag City Records, 9.22.2017

Last we heard from Ka Baird, the artist was going all-in for heavyweight piano compositions and a diverse tribute to John Coltrane, both under the Sapropelic Pycnic moniker. Now, Baird is back, this time on Drag City Records, collecting another set of material for release as Sapropelic Pycnic. This time, the name is the album, and Baird’s shifting nomenclature is a fitting signal to the listener to follow suit: this time, it’s not a particular brand of free or longform piano, nor is it full ensemble acoustic-synthetic experimentation (well, not quite). The flute is front and center in terms of instrumentation, but it’s Baird’s voice that takes the greatest leap forward on this collection, delivered both in abstract frequency-shifting howls and baroque, highly structural triumphs. There is no secret about how I feel about Baird’s past work and performances, and Sapropelic Pycnic is another challenging and beautiful excursion that should solidify the artist’s status on the forefront of pure jazz-and-experimentation production.

The bones of Sapropelic Pycnic are flute passages and loops, or samples built from those passages. The excitement of this backbone comes from Baird’s portrayal of breath and percussion, where microphones seemingly capture the hit of the buttons and the force of the breath driving the instrument, both of which are then punctuated into snippet format by a synthetic element. This production has the wild effect of producing beats that are guttural and often pure funk, wholly synthetic and even alien, yet fully organic. Baird enhances this with staccato vocal backing to the flute beats on “Tok Tru,” producing something that sounds like Sun Ra playing a Nico album. There is a part of me that wants an entire album of these beats by Baird, each a wicked take on any sort of purist attitude on synthetics or acoustic instrumentation in jazz. Baird bends the reality so thoroughly that there’s really nothing left to do but dance, move, and submerge into these rhythms. This thread works on the bulk of the record, foreshadowing darker synthetic experimentation on “Oneric” and fluttering repetition exercises on “Metamorphoses.”

It’s not all punctuated, staccato flute beats though! Sapropelic Pycnic is a dual phased record insofar as Baird offers several compositions that keep one foot in the room of Spires that in the Sunset Rise’s recent jazz and the longform droning that was hinted at on the Coltrane tribute title performance, “A Love Supreme.” The cyclical frequencies of “Transmigration” best exemplify this aspect of the album. Here the artist’s voice becomes the focal point, as Baird’s structured approach demonstrates clear phrasing and heightens dramatic tonal migrations from the guttural beats and samples of the album’s shorter tracks. Long phrasing here is enhanced due to its basic proximity with the shorter, breathy beats of the earlier songs, offering quite a contrast in style to the listener.

In terms of narrative, these trends converge within the last two tracks, “Ka” and “You Are Myself.” Ka extends some of the woodwind breathing exercises and synthetic manipulation while droning, fluttering lines arise from that foundation. “Ka” might be the busiest track on Sapropelic Pycnic, but in the sense of showcasing metholodogy in a condensed space. “You Are Myself” follows, completing the arc of “Transmigration” and landing the album in less exotic territory as it closes. Not a criticism though — the sustained, ascending pulses of “You Are Myself” sound exceptionally peaceful in the wake of the imprints of the earlier compositions.

There’s something I want to underscore with Baird’s work that is difficult to emphasize because it’s a necessarily incomplete thought. It’s so easy to reach certain types of essentialism with each review of an artist’s work. I feel this way reflecting on each time I’ve reviewed Spires that in the Sunset Rise. Each of their albums progressed toward some specific ideal or achievement latent in their experimentation. For me, those compositions revealed something about the potential and wonder of experimental music; about a coextension of mysticism and rationalism. I thought this again when the Sapropelic Pycnic works were released around the turn of 2016, that Baird provided two diverse statements reaching for the most robust vision of jazz. With Sapropelic Pycnic, I am becoming more comfortable simply following the waves that Baird sees fit to create, that once one album outlines a frontier that landscape is not complete but merely open for millions of photographs, renderings, hikes, and tales. From the winding free piano to the acoustic-synthetic band of previous works.