South Horizon

November 30, 2012

South Horizon.

It’s the process, not the result, that matters to me.

Pyke, in The Buddha of Suburbia.

Where to begin when rummaging through your life? One starting place was jazz, a first love. “I want to be a saxophonist in a modern jazz quartet,” Bowie told Bromley Tech’s School Careers Officer when he was leaving school in summer 1963. In his memory chain in the Buddha of Suburbia liner notes, he included Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho, where as a teenager he’d seen a number of American jazz players. Bowie had already returned to jazz with Black Tie White Noise, thanks to Lester Bowie, but on that record he’d kept to contemporary fusion. Now, with “South Horizon,” he tried his hand at the avant-garde, and outsourced the job to Mike Garson, as he had in 1973.

Garson’s five-chorus piano solo on “Aladdin Sane” played against a basic rock rhythm track in 4/4: bass root notes, acoustic guitar and drums, constantly shifting between A and G chords. For “Horizon,” Bowie offered a craftier puzzle for Garson to solve. (Garson recorded his contributions in California, months after Bowie and Erdal Kizilcay had cut most of Buddha). Bowie started “Horizon” by monkeying with one of his Buddha soundtrack motifs, a brief trumpet/synthesizer passage, isolating a few melodic peaks of the trumpet melody, layering in percussion (both live and electronic), and then “all elements, from the lead instrumentation to texture, were played both forwards and backwards. The resulting extracts were then intercut arbitrarily,” Bowie wrote. He thought it worked: “South Horizon” was his favorite piece on the album.

Still, Bowie always talked a more dramatic game than he delivered; even his Low instrumentals formed by chaotic motivations have fairly standard song structures. And “Horizon,” although “intercut arbitrarily,” is in two obvious halves (the join is at 2:24), an opening “trad jazz” movement anchored by Kizilcay’s drums, and a closing “acid jazz” movement paced to a drum machine. There’s some bleed-through—the drum machine winks in about a minute into the “trad” section, while a trumpet motif that repeats every eight bars in the opening half reappears once more in the “acid” stretch—with Garson’s piano and Kizilcay’s walking bass being the main border-crossers.

The opening half of “Horizon” is spare, with a cycling trumpet motif (sometimes shortened, sometimes allowed to fully expire) and a set of four synthesizer chords creating a harmonic wash, while the lead perspective shifts between Kizilcay’s drums (themselves a dialogue between ride cymbal, hi-hat and kick, interrupted by occasional tom fills), Garson’s piano and Kizilcay’s bass, which starts challenging Garson midway through. The latter half of “Horizon,” kicked off by a groaning “three blind mice” synth pattern that returns twice more to break up the various solos, introduces a few new characters, like a second Kizilcay trumpet track (sprightlier and sweeter, as though happy to have escaped the loop that claimed its predecessor) and Bowie’s saxophone. With Garson doing the fireworks, Bowie’s content here to be a secondary player, offering support and a few mild variations to a dancing synthesizer melody that appears whenever he’s on stage. It’s as though we’re hearing a Bowie who became a “modern jazz” sax player in Bromley, but who never made it out of the suburbs.

Garson starts out in the “trad” section playfully, winking through a few scales, rumbling away on the bass end, jabbing against Kizilcay’s bassline, as if trying to undermine it. When the drum machine kicks in, Garson, after an initial darting melody in response, starts giving random commentaries on his fellow players, sometimes trying to drum them out with pounded chords, while playing a sweet counter-melody during the return of the trumpet motif; he closes with a fractured lullaby carried on his highest keys. Garson, on his “Aladdin” solo, sounded like someone who had managed to soak up every speck of music that he’d ever heard, and who was able to reproduce it at will, like God’s player piano. His work on “Horizon” is nothing as outrageous: it’s more concise, more conciliatory, still crafty. Knowing he could play anything, he often chooses here to keep silent, or just give a hint of some greater pattern.

The track’s weak link is the drum programming (whether Bowie, Kizilcay or David Richards, or some combination of the three): it sounds like someone playing on a tissue and comb when compared to the beats on key house/ambient/dance tracks of 1993 (see “Renegade Snares” or “Aftermath Version One” or “Planet of the Shapes” or “The Nervous Track”). Still, “Horizon” is the work of a restless, renewed mind that, in Garson and Kizilcay, found some fine tools to execute its ambitions.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux (Garson’s piano was recorded ca. July-September 1993, at O’Henry Sound, Burbank, California).

Top: Stuart Griffiths, “Brighton, 1993-1994.”