Celebrating Alan Watts’s 100th birthday year, Jas Walton sets early Alan Watts recordings to original grooves. Alan Watts is one of the most important interpreters of Eastern philosophy for his time and ours. If he were alive today, he’d probably subvert social media in the same way he helped to reinvent western culture in his own time—his words are as relevant now as they were then. This year, Watts turns 100. Figure & Ground honors his centennial with this four-track EP that takes the recordings of his early seminar sessions and sets them to original music. Alan’s wit and wisdom were first broadcast on radio stations in the Bay Area in the late ’50s and soon spread across America through public talks, tape recordings, books, and on screen. On his portable tape deck, Alan’s son Mark Watts captured hundreds of hours of his father’s seminar sessions. Alan Watts’s candid spirit comes through in these psychedelic Californian ruminations, intriguing incantations, and compelling thoughts on existence. It’s a trip. A decade later, New York-based musician Jas Walton found these recordings. One day while experimenting with chord progression loops at home in Brooklyn, he decided to drop in Watts’ voice. He started nudging a few words and phrases around, and soon enough got carried away and strict about every word falling in the pocket. On the EP, Watts’s rhythmic phrases are set in time to Walton’s soulful grooves, textured with synth and horns. A top saxophone player in New York, Walton performed as part of the Luaka Bop’s William Onyeabor tribute shows and has played with Antibalas, The Roots, and Superhuman Happiness, to name a few. We offer you here an introduction to the music of Jas Walton and a reintroduction to the world of Alan Watts.
In early 2016, two New York session musicians Miles Arntzen and Jas Walton—who both currently play in the Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas—began experimenting with their respective instruments in Miles’s Greenwich Village basement. Arntzen (Will Butler, TEEN, Mark Ronson) on drums and Walton (Leon Bridges, Sinkane, Father Figures) on saxophone, the duo hunkered down to compose demos that were made up of percussion, woodwinds, and the offbeat sounds of everyday objects. The style of recording and manipulating everyday ‘non-musical’ sounds was born in Paris during the 1940s and dubbed “musique concrète.” Recording became an artform in itself as musicians began playing with the possibilities of altering sounds and performances. This revolutionary process seeped into pop music in the mid-‘60s, and is now—due to ever-advancing music technology—a staple of mainstream music. Explorations in Drums & Sax is a hat tip to the novelty of recorded sounds back when they were still weird and way out. As well as experimenting with the early laboratory process of musique concrète, Miles notes, “usually one of us was coming from something else, from a rehearsal with so-and-so right to my basement and just jumping right in. There was no time to think about what might be seeping in influence-wise, but it was always related to all the other things we were doing.” The duo began working together in 2009 when they started the Afrobeat band EMEFE in jazz school. Between each of their sidemen gigs with other artists, they steal time to get together and spin their own creations. While touring with Luaka Bop’s William Onyeabor supergroup Atomic Bomb!, Jas met Beastie Boys’ synth master Money Mark and Sudanese-pop artist Ahmed Gallab (Sinkane, Caribou, Of Montreal, Yeasayer). In March, the four of them convened in Brooklyn to record under the project name Les Yper Sound, titled after Pierre Henry’s 1967 musique concrète EP. This studio-oriented team of multi-instrumentalists—who are all producers in their own right—digested Miles and Jas’s original basement demos and began improvising new works during sessions at Shahzad Ismaily’s new studio in Brooklyn. On November 4, 2016, Figure & Ground releases its sophomore album Explorations in Drums & Sax, an all-instrumental journey through numerous genre-crossing worlds. Comprised of 14 original tracks by Les Yper Sound, the album pulls from the group’s eclectic influences. Surrounded by an array of acoustic and electronic sounds—all rooted in rhythms and pop melodies—it showcases the versatility of percussion and woodwinds and the various and unusual ways of recording their elements. The 12-inch vinyl LP release features coke bottle-clear wax and a digital download code. The process-based sessions were engineered and mixed by Eli Crews (tUnE-yArDs, Yoko Ono, Lorde) and produced by Lily Wen (Dust & Grooves). The spring workshop days involved opening up demos and building new songs from found objects such as a tape head stylus, a coffee maker, coins, and a pickup. “It’s all about finding that starting point,” says Jas, “and everything blossoms from there.” As Miles puts it, “we would just start with an improvisational sound, do that for three minutes, build a song around it, and then maybe at the end of the whole thing, you can’t even hear that first thing anymore but it’s a part of everything else that happened around it. When you play a rhythm on a cool-sounding prepared piano, you don’t know what genre you’re in. Maybe it will become a Brazilian jam or maybe it’ll become a soulful groove—and all that happened in the studio. You’re letting the sound of something dictate and inspire you.” Money Mark, who studied with the early electronic instrument pioneers, revealed some of his ‘recording hacks’ that were key to finding the musical in non-traditional objects. Miles recalls: “We went out to lunch and Money Mark was missing somewhere, and he comes back with two TV speakers and says: ‘We could just plug these into an amp and hit them with your fingers—one’s a little broken but maybe it could be the snare,’ and that’s is exactly what happened. We come back from lunch, plug them into a bass amp, and sure enough it’s perfect.”
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