In new-age music's cast of characters, Mark Isham plays the part of the Seducer. The trumpeter has made a career of following increasingly darker musical directions, slowly luring the crystal crowd into the shadows with him.
His latest release Mark Isham is such a heavy, overcast effort, it seems as likely to win praise from the sunshine-and-vitamin-C set as Crime and Punishment is to win a children's book award. Yet, surprisingly, the 1990 recording won a Grammy for Best New-Age Performance.
If new-age music possesses an element of loose dreaminess, then Mark Isham is in a trance. Liquid guitar oozes through Isham's manic trumpet visions, atop bass lines that sound like guttural threats. Isham courts mysterious company with Irish singer Tanita Tikaram's despondent vocals on "Blue Moon" and a constant East Indian street-market percussion.
There isn't a hint of daylight on the entire album. Despite the darkness, Mark Isham is an addictive, entrancing recording.
But Isham's success hasn't come from blindly stumbling into new-age. His sound closely resembles the dark, visceral feel of his greatest influence, Miles Davis.
"No other trumpet player has done as much for the sound of the trumpet, or the possibilities of music in general," says Isham, in a phone conversation from his California home. "He showed for the first time that the trumpet can be an intensely intimate, very personal instrument. Miles introduced very soft playing, very few notes and a very passionate approach to the horn. He has most certainly influenced the development of my style."
Initially, Isham shook his head over Miles' dark directions.
"I remember hearing him and not liking him at all," he recalls. "He was definitely too out-there for me. That was around the time his quintet had put out the albums E.S.P. and Nefertiti. A little later I picked up another Miles album and all of a sudden it hit me, `That's what he's doing.'
"Ever since that moment, the ten-year stretch of his career up through Bitches Brew has become my favorite period of his playing."
Despite that influence, Isham has never been a Miles wannabe. Rather than aping the jazzman's understated trumpet style, Isham learned its underlying lesson, and used it to unveil his own personality and musical intensity.
"There is a musical statement I keep playing with," says the trumpeter. "It has to do with a triumphant quality which stretches from my first album through the tune `Toward the Infinite White' on the latest record. Sometimes in classical music you hear that emotion, a Mahler-like feel. But you seldom hear it in jazz. When I try to intellectualize what my sound is about, I can only narrow it down to a portrayal of the triumph of the human spirit."
Another lesson Isham learned from Davis is the importance of sidemen. He pays homage again and again in his music to the very masculine, militaristic style of former Davis drummer Tony Williams.
"I think Tony is the all-time best," says Isham. "That's why I like to work with drummers like Terry Bozzio--players who come from an aggressive tradition and understand that way of approaching music."
He goes on, "Miles changed the face of jazz when he stuck Williams, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, and a bass clarinet player in a room together and came up with Bitches Brew. Listening to the results taught me the importance of picking specific players and writing for each individual feel."
Isham has repeatedly turned to colorful guitarist David Torn on his recordings. In turn, the larger-than-life fretwhacker grabbed Isham for his own journey into jazz bleakness, Cloud About Mercury.
The dialogues between Isham and Torn wrote a new chapter for Cloud's German label ECM Records. Though most of ECM's heady jazz seems aimed at pipe-smoking librarians, Isham and Torn knocked the books off the shelves. Isham used his trumpet and flugelhorn to deliver an improvised narration over Torn's guitar playing, the most vulgar spewing of the id on wax. Their "3 Minutes of Pure Entertainment" is as nasty as mean porno, equaling the trumpet-guitar scuffle between Miles Davis and Mike Stern on We Want Miles.
"Since Cloud I've tried to find as many projects as possible for us to work on together," says Isham of Torn. "David is one of the top players around. He's creating a whole new vocabulary for the guitar."
Isham also used Torn on his next record, a leap toward the outer limits called Tibet. The record turned out to be an album-length tone poem heralding, appropriately enough, the most remote region of the world. "Tibet was a wonderful challenge, delving into the mysterious East and learning about all those sounds and textures," says Isham. "But I never get very literal with the music from those lands. I look at myself as more of an impressionist--someone who steps back and makes vague allusions to those techniques and sounds. I never try to just copy them."
Tibet captured the attention of Alan Rudolph, a director whose movies are peopled with confused, dismal characters never quite capable of overcoming the odds. Rudolph has used Isham's scores for five of his films, most recently the Demi Moore-Bruce Willis vehicle Mortal Thoughts.
"Alan and I have a similar approach," says Isham. "He's a very jazzlike movie director. He loves to create situations, let the actors get started and then just capture them on film--which is basically the same way jazz works. We also have the same tastes in music. When I take a ride with him, what he's listening to on his car stereo is often exactly what I'm listening to."
In some of Rudolph's films, Isham has played, at Rudolph's suggestion, with Marianne Faithfull, Leonard Cohen, and Warren Zevon.
The trumpeter has also chosen to twin up with selected members of the alternative-rock movement. His recent guest appearances on record include stints with David Sylvian, XTC, and Tanita Tikaram.
Isham's playing was given a stamp of approval when Mr. Into-the-Mystery himself, Van Morrison, invited Isham to play trumpet and synthesizers on five albums of Morrison's pastoral yearnings.
"Van was very interested in the ambient-music movement prior to it being seen in the public eye as new-age music. He was fascinated by the new style, and since I was playing it, the situation was opportune for both of us," says Isham. "For a couple of years we experimented in applying those techniques to his music. I think a few of the albums, especially Inarticulate Speech of the Heart and Beautiful Vision, reflect the best of that work.
"Van Morrison is very similar to Miles in some ways. He has a tremendously unique sound that constantly changes."
Isham also makes a career out of delving into curious musical modes. No one else in new-age music has his ability to play a sprightly cobra dance alongside music of the shadows. But like Miles Davis, who lives shackled to the term "jazz" but prefers "new directions in music," Isham finds music labeling confining.
"It gets silly. Categories aren't for musicologists, they're for record buyers. They help people get to the right alley in the record store. With that in mind, I'm left with this new-age classification that allows me to win a Grammy. What the connotations are," he chuckles, "I really don't care."
Mark Isham will perform at Hayden Square Amphitheatre on Thursday, May 16. Showtime is 6 p.m.
No one has his ability to play a sprightly cobra dance alongside music of the shadows.
If new-age music possesses an element of loose dreaminess, then Mark Isham is in a trance.
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His sound closely resembles the dark, visceral feel of his greatest influence, Miles Davis.
Alan Rudolph has used Isham's scores for five of his films, most recently the Demi Moore-Bruce Willis vehicle Mortal Thoughts.
Isham's playing was given a stamp of approval when Mr. Into-the-Mystery himself, Van Morrison, invited him to play.