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October 2002

DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid
Optometry

More than any other turntablist in trip-hop or beyond, Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid) places himself within a distinct avant-garde lineage-that of Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. Optometry, his first putative jazz recording, attempts to lasso another form of avant-gardism-the comprovisational realm of the post-'60s new thing. His collaborators in this cause could hardly be more apt; pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker and drummer Guillermo E. Brown have all employed electronics on recent recordings (both as solo artists and together, with David S. Ware).

"Think of Optometry as sound-art," Miller instructs us, in a liner-note essay too pedantically prideful to make much sense. This particular point, however, hits its mark; much of Optometry is in fact an aural landscape with a ground but no figure, a democratic assemblage of sonic particulars and disembodied parts. On "Sequentia Absentia," a laptop-processed saxophone (probably Joe McPhee) floats over a drum loop as Shipp, Parker and Brown issue sparse, ruminative statements; the kalimba and electronic blips that fade in and out are both peripheral and central to the track. A two-part "Variation Cybern‚tique" consists of solo violin musings (by Daniel Bernard Roumain) framed by accompanying textures and touches (sampled chimes, gongs, hand drums and tonal drones). The title track opens with a synthetic bass line, moves into free abstraction courtesy of Roumain and Brown and then adopts a funk stance-with Shipp stabbing rhythmically over a Parker foundation and a Billy Martin drum sample. Moving onward, it introduces a JB-horn riff from McPhee, along with a rolling succession of sampled beats (more Martin), violin arpeggios (more Roumain) and sound manipulation (all Miller).

Even here, and on a heavily jazz-inflected opening track, DJ Spooky functions not as an additional member-or even a "leader"-of a jazz ensemble. His art has less to do with improvisation than organization; the live musicians on this session aren't contributing partners so much as colors on his palette or gears in his machine. So Optometry isn't a "jazz record," despite the jazz process it occasionally adopts. Nor is it a hip-hop joint, despite "Parachutes" (featuring rapper Napoleon of the Cincinnati group IsWhat?!) and "Asphalt" (with a ponderous spoken word by Carl Hancock Rux). Which makes sense, since Miller seems intent on showing us another road, a new way of seeing. At this point, there's no telling whether other artists will pick up on his "jazz for the gene-splice generation." But what DJ Spooky has done here is no less impressive as an individual achievement than as the paradigm shift he seems to be awaiting.

Originally published in October 2002
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