Think of Two, the new album from David Helbock’s Random/Control based in Germany, isn’t music for the conservative jazz lover. Although the tunes on the set include well-known jazz standards by Thelonious Monk and Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal, they are explored with what might be called the paradoxical Random/Control aesthetic, a modernist attempt to marry the two diametrically opposed organizing principles that give the ensemble its name. The result, depending on the listener’s taste, is either an imaginative journey to the musical edge or a misguided leap over that edge.
With the oft-cited blunders of critics burdened with old values when met with new musical ideas, I am hesitant to dismiss Helbock out of hand, but in all honesty, I must confess that for much of the album I neither understand, nor care to listen to what the Random/Control trio is doing. I find myself liking them best the more traditional they sound. For example, in a composition like Monk’s “Pannonica,” you get some absolutely gorgeous passages juxtaposed with passages of pure cacophony, and this kind of contrast runs through nearly each and every one of the album’s dozen tracks.
Many of the songs begin with a collage of strange ambient-found sounds. The trio’s members—Helbock, Johannes Bar, and Andreas Broger—are credited with over 30 instruments, some quite exotic, so there are ample tools for strange ambiance between them. There are times, however, when you can have too much of a good thing. There is a feeling that everybody has to show what he can do with each of the different instruments, and it takes the focus away from the totality of the music.
At times the instrumentation seems almost intended comically, as in their version of Monk’s “Trinkle, Tinkle” or the monkey-like noises in “Para Hermeto,” the lone Helbock original composition. Too often, it seems like the instrumental variety calls attention to itself rather than contributing to a unified reading of the piece. Random dominates control.
All that said, experimental music makes its own audience. Yesterday’s avant-garde is today’s classic, and today’s cacophony may well be tomorrow’s norm.