REVIEW: Jeremiah Cymerman’s “Fire Sign”

Photobucket The first time I heard of Jeremiah Cymerman was in an issue of TapeOp, the Portland, Oregon-based magazine for recording engineers and producers, be it professional, “bedroom producers”, or hobbyists. What moved me about the article was that Cymerman played the clarinet but would use his laptop as his recording studio. This in itself isn’t a big deal, since countless musicians have made the laptop the primary way of composing and recording for years. One can say “wait now, a clarinet and a laptop. That’s it?” That’s the point, that wasn’t it, but what he did with various audio programs, filters, and plug-ins was create an album that isn’t associated with just “a man and his clarinet”, and the soundscapes he created made me want to hear more. I bought that album on Tzadik, and with John Zorn affiliation I knew I would be in good hands. Loved the album, and I was ready for more.

I did a search a few weeks ago on Tzadik’s website and discovered Cymerman had a new album on the label. That search lead to the discovery of another album he released last year, one I was not aware of. Found a copy of that on eBay and I heard that first before the new Tzadik. Last year’s album was a slight step away from what I had heard before, focusing more on the composing/arranging side of Cymerman’s talents, but what I heard was someone that was much more than just the clarinet guy who can rock ProTools. That album was orchestral, symphonic, avant-garde jazz, everything that I didn’t expect for it to be, but because of my interests in those styles of music, I loved it. What would this new album consist of?

If you have his previous works, and more specifically the two albums I described, Fire Sign is a mixture of what Cymerman does as a musician, composer, and arranger. His clarinet work can be heard in the opening track (appropriately called “Opening”) but once you open the door, everything gets twisted inside out to where you don’t know if you were born in the right era. In truth, the liner notes from Cymerman himself indicate that these tracks were made in periods of creative lulls. As someone who has made music in the last 19 years, I can totally relate to times when I’ve felt completely stuck and unsure what direction to go next. Rather than sit around, he simply allowed sounds to come and go as they may, and assembled them as he saw fit. “Collapsed Eustachian” is a sonic battle between trumpeters Nate Wooley and Peter Evans, musicians he had worked with before. In this track, they were not in the same studio when recording this, so this battle is fictionalized, or at least what you hear was made up through two different sound sources from different moments. It sounds like the kind of twisted avant-garde jazz where musicians get into a pocket of noise and play hopscotch with each other, but then Cymerman jumps in with his computer expertise and completely fucks things up like he’s the Wizard of Impatience and wants to have his fun too. Then there’s “I Woke Up Early The Day That I Died”, featuring Tom Blancarte on contrabass, where you can imagine him sitting on a chair in a room playing these sounds, but then Blancarte realizes “wait, I want to play this instrument inside of the contrabass”, and what you hear comes off like a crafty woodsman entering it, sliding down the strings, knocking his head on the wood while a distant voice (a radio? a cell phone? an audience?) adds his input. The stroking of each string sounds like footsteps, and now it feels like someone is walking in the room above you, even though you may be outside. Need rhythm? Only the disturbed breakbeat junkies will find delight in “Touched With Fire”, featuring Brian Chase on drums and Christopher Hoffman on cello. Read that again: drums and cello. But this is drums and cello put into the mind of Cymerman, where the sound of what sounds like vinyl surface noise becomes electronic pulses, and then it’s chopped, flipped, cut in not-so-even pieces, rewound, and punched in the face. Then the welts are absorbed and turned into distant echoes, nothing more than new sound/found sources to add into the recipe. The emotional is mixed with the personal in “Burned Across The Sky”, composed for Cymerman’s stepfather who passed away. The song doubles as the album’s parting song, and the liner notes indicate it’s meditative but you also hear the sound of sorrow and pain, and perhaps the sounds of birth, life, and death played through the clarinet as a repetitive melody is heard, almost like a New Orleans funeral dirge that goes on and on without reaching that conclusion of delight. Then again, some of the sounds created have cartoon music qualities, not sure if that was meant to be a part of an unspoken dialogue between the living and the departed, but just as John Coltrane‘s “Psalm” is meant to be a prayer for all, “Burned Across The Sky” is the acknowledgement of one, to one, by one.

Fire Sign is freeform electronic music combined with classical and jazz, as if the work of Michael McNabb had a mean sugar rush and what you’re hearing is those heady feelings put into sound. Non-rock/pop music with structure can be stereotyped by elitists who feel that structure is absolute, where everything is meant to be by the book, but Cymerman is very much a 21st century artist, musician, and composer. It’s not a complete free-for-all but the fun is that it sounds just like that. It’s not a “throw it on the wall and see what sticks” thing, but you could hear it that way if you wish. What I do like is that for someone who may have been in a creative lull, sometimes the downtime can result in something quite mad and beautiful all at once. It was John Lennon who once said intuition takes me there, and perhaps Cymerman had a sense that even bits of insignificant nothings could lead into something, or at least he would venture into a project and see where he would find himself at the end. I’m not sure where he may be creatively, but if one door has lead him to a room full of doors for more adventures and opportunities, I hope his intuition and muse will keep him moving.

(You can also order Fire Sign directly from the artist by clicking over to