Reviews/Articles

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Very nice improvised bass compositions. This is Houston-based Helton's debut CD as a solo player. Unless you're used to freeform, the listening may be a bit of a challenge, but (in this reviewer's opinion), that's a good thing! You'll need the headphones & an hour or so of no interruptions to absorb the sonic beauty he paints for your ears... lots of spaces for you to fill in the holes with. He frequently plays the lower registers, so there is at times an "ominous" tone... since there are only 3 tracks, you will need to hear a/the whole track to understand (even a little bit) what he is saying. If you're a "pop freak," with the attention span of (so) many American listeners, this won't attract you.. but he has high energy and is totally immersed in the intricacy of the moment - that earns a MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED from us, particularly for seasoned improv veterans. A most interesting/absorbing journey into strings.

Rotcod Zzaj


 

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A bassist in mainstream jazz groups, Thomas Helton fell in love with free improvisation after being exposed to the great Peter Kowald and there and then began to develop his own vocabulary. This no-nonsense album simply titled Doublebass is his first solo release in the field of creative music. It features three untitled tracks ranging from 12 to 34 minutes in durations, all recorded live during a residency at the Cafe Artiste in Houston, TX. The microphone has picked up much more than the sounds emanating from the instrument. Throughout the recordings we can hear conversation and the espresso machine. Tolerable, even mood-setting during the first piece, the level of ambient noise becomes aggravating in the second one as people obviously pay little attention to the bassist. The first and last pieces feature Helton playing mostly arco. His simultaneous use of a slappy pizzicato and drone-like bowing evoke Kowald, while his display of stamina seems inherited from William Parker. Loud and trance-inducing in track one, the music turns almost violent in track three - the man can slap a mean string. Track two is a different affair altogether. The bassist starts on a simple finger ostinato and slowly introduces light variations, occasionally droning with the bow while keeping the riff going at the same time. The rubato 3/4 beat and the slow evolutive pace of the piece are strongly reminiscent of Lloyd Swanton's work in the trio The Necks. Doublebass is a first landmark of a work-in-progress. Helton is on the right track, but he needs to find a more personal voice - and a quiter venue to record.

Francois Couture


 

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The title says it all. Thomas Helton wails on his double bass for an hour. Three pieces, each of which is rather distinct from the other.

 

What I like about Helton is that he actually plays the instrument. He's not picking or whacking or trying to make noises that the thing was never meant to play. He's simply composed some song and he plays them.

 

I'll amend the "noises" statement. he does come up with a few cool screeches and whines, but only while he's also playing another line. Mostly, though, he's wandering through bass territory I've not heard before. He doesn't push the envelope all that much (this statement doesn't exactly contradict what I just said), but he sure does know how to get the most out of his instrument.

 

Fans of the truly avant garde won't really dig this, and certainly those with a toe in the mainstream will run screaming. But those who like to hear a nice workout on the double bass (which, after the baritone sax, is perhaps the coolest instrument around), Helton provides plenty of fine listening. I had a fine time, myself.

Sam Henry, Splendid Magazine.


 

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After hearing the work of the late bass improviser Peter Kowald, Thomas Helton was inspired to find his own niche in the world of avant-garde music. Doublebass draws on six months of solo performance at Houston's Care Artiste.

 

Helton keeps to his theme of simple titles when naming Doublebass's tracks. "Track 1" is over half an hour of Helton's brand of free-bass, and tracks two and tree are similarly unconstrained - both stretch well beyond the ten minute mark.

 

It's often hard to tell where Helton is going with these songs. While a few of the album's more constructed moments offer eerie soundscapes, the majority of the work pays very little heed to conventional song structures. Helton is obviously a technically skilled musician - he is able to make his bass sound like everything from a flute to a buzzing bee - but that sort of textural exploration isn't everyone's bag. Listeners with an intellectual interest in sound and texture will be fascinated, but bass lovers who want something more concrete should try a Brokeback record.

??? reviewer ???


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Doublebass

Thomas Helton is a bass player from Houston, Texas, performing with the local scene of jazzmen and improvisers. He composes for multimedia projects and dance companies as well. Though having a rather classical pedigree as a sideman, his first 2 CDs are mostly ‘improvised compositions’ – for bass solo on his first 2003 ‘Doublebass’ CD, and for bass and wind ensemble on ‘Experimentations…’. The compositions on the latter are a joy to listen to, even for adventurous ears. Some of the tracks (Pious for Clarinet and Pious for Trumpet) have a classical music feeling, almost like a wind ensemble composition from Brahms or Hindemith. This is modern jazz, the musicians merely improvise on short themes provided by Helton. There are many guests on this CD but the music is kept focused and great care is given to ensemble playing. The sound of the wind instruments (various saxes, clarinets, trumpet and trombone) is warm and pleasing to the ears. See detailed review here. The cover is from a painting by the composer.

-Continuo

Experimentations in Minimalism

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Saga

This is this doublebassist’s third self-released CDR. Helton is free improviser who has developed interesting extended techniques. He puts these techniques to good use on the title 11-minute track, a commanding and surprisingly moving piece where he combines atonal bow strokes and a fingered two-note leitmotiv. The remainder of the album is less strong, although one live piece comes back to the same figure. There’s also one live piece by his Core Trio (the rest is solo), rather good but poorly recorded (at least it’s presented as a bonus track). Physical presentation is bare: a CDR in a slim jewel case with a home-printed black-and-white card.

-François Couture

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THOMAS HELTON Saga (FreeBass Productions): Houston ist für Einiges, aber nicht gerade als Jazzhochburg bekannt. Helton spielt dort in Tim Hagans Subversive Jazz und im The Core Trio und schreibt Musik für das Torture Chamber Ensemble. Eine seiner Spezialitäten ist jedoch das Solospiel, das er nach seinem Debut Doublebass (2001) hier erneut exerziert in 4 Studio- und einem langen Livetrack. Der Titel ‚Oh No! (Godzilla / Mothra Duet)‘ klingt dabei nur solange kokett, bis die ersten Töne einsetzen und einem Heltons Texas Chainsaw genüsslich die Schädeldecke aufsägt. Helton hat seine ganz eigene Art, dem Kontrabass Töne abzunötigen. Er geigt gern in schrillem oder knarzigem Sägezahndiskant, jaulend, krätzig, voluminös, monströs. Die Nackenhaare sträuben sich, aber innerlich teilt etwas in der Blutbahn die Freude an solchen, doch, Freunde, genau solchen infernalischen Götterfunken. Dazu plonkt er gleichzeitig sonore, monotone Noten vom langen Ende der Saiten. Das Ganze hat etwas Uriges, Heroisches, und der Titel ‚Saga‘ unterstreicht diesen Anspruch. Durch‘s offene Fenster piepsen Wald- & Wiesenvögel, aber auch weiße Raben haben ihre Lieder. Als Bonus spielt Helton mit Seth Paynter am Saxophon und Richard Cholakian an den Drums als The Core Trio ‚Free Jazz‘, live. Keine Feuermusik aus dem Stand, vielmehr nach kühlem Beginn ein Schmelzprozess, der Eis in spritzige Poesie verwandelt, wobei Helton ausschließlich pizzikato mitspritzt. [BA 63 rbd]

BY CHRIS BECKER

05.04.11 | 12:28 pm

This new weekly column will focus on the breadth and variety of Houston’s musical scene. I’ll be writing about 21st century composition, improvised idioms, and performances that integrate theater, visual arts, and/or dance. Inevitably, my love for rock, jazz, country and all out noise will creep into the column as well.

I want to expand people’s awareness (including my own) of the innovative musicians living and working in Houston: The rare birds of the city’s sonic culture.

Musicians speak warily of the “jazz police” who are, for those of you unaware, an elite and mysterious branch of the Central Intelligence Agency whose mission is to control the shape of jazz to come. They operate at the most conservative and most avant-garde ends of the musical spectrum, closing minds and closing ears.

Using fear tactics, economics, and music critics, the “jazz police” can convince even the most rational musicians and listeners to self censor their playing and listening habits thus helping to perpetuate a hierarchy in music. Insidious. And their influence goes beyond who or who doesn’t get a job at a club, contract with a dinosaur record label, or mention in a hip column like mine.

The “jazz police” adopt a pose of “self-aggrandizing elitism” befitting the most pinheaded classicist or way-out modernist. Don’t misinterpret and think I’m only picking on the suits here. As the composer Frank Zappa once said in concert to a heckling audience member: “Everyone here is wearing a uniform, don’t kid yourself…”

We all have our preconceptions, opinions and respective comfort zones. It is only human to feel weird when confronted with the unfamiliar, and there is always unfamiliar music being made somewhere. But when we buy into the B.S. the “police” perpetuate regarding the relative quality of one manner of music making over another, we compromise our ability to simply enjoy the sheer variety of sounds that coexist quite happily beyond our intellectualizing.

Bassist and composer Thomas Helton has no interest in policing your mind and therefore may be an anomaly among jazz musicians. He plays out frequently.

Recently, here in Houston, you might have heard him at Discovery Green leading a nine-piece band through the tricky charts of Miles Davis’ 1957 album Birth of the Cool or across town at Labotanica playing tuba in a group of free improvisers at Nameless Sound’s They Who Sound series. Helton has formed bands to play the compositions of Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus, and Clifford Brown, performed with his musically omnivorous Core Trio, used an award from the Houston Arts Alliance to produce a concert with his 15-piece Torture Chamber Ensemble, compiled, transcribed and self-published a “real book” of tunes by Houston jazz musicians, and improvised with interactive computer software created by sound artist Kevin Patton.

The common thread through these varied projects is Helton himself, who is surprisingly self deprecating with regards to his “jazz” playing, yet obviously thrives in challenging and forward thinking musical situations. After meeting Helton for a conversation about music this past week, I was reminded of William Burroughs’ acknowledgement of the “quiet strength and competence” of alto saxophonist and free jazz originator Ornette Coleman.

Like Coleman, Helton enjoys music in all of its guises, be it bebop, heavy metal or avant-garde. Whether swinging with his Birth of the Cool tribute band, or utilizing extended techniques while in dialogue with a temperamental computer, elitism is not a part of Helton’s M.O.

Like many contemporary musicians these days, Helton is exploring new and creative ways to share and promote his music. His latest project is a DVD created in collaboration with Houston’s Binarium Productions, featuring a solo bass performance by Helton filmed in a variety of raw and unfinished spaces. Shot by videographer Jonathan Jindra, who is also a fine electronic musician, Helton’s meditative and ritualistic performance is complimented by eerie and imposing environments of pockmarked concrete, exposed air ducts and piles of bricks.

Throughout the video, Jindra interjects his own abstract organic visuals complimenting shifts of texture in Helton’s music. It ain’t Live at Birdland. Helton hopes the present the final cut along with special musical performances at alternative film venues locally and beyond.

By Ramon (Free Press Houston)

Thomas Helton (Photo By Jonathan Jindra)

Bassist Thomas Helton’s music has a certain explorative quality that suggests a musician constantly reaching out to explore new ways to express and push himself as a musician.  His work with The Core Trio and his solo work in particular sparkle with an almost youthful sense of joy and curiosity.  Lately, Helton has incorporated video to accompany his releases and both his recent solo bass release (simply titled “I”) with Jonathan Jindra and the upcoming Core Trio’s release take advantage of the power of visuals in ways many Jazz players never consider.  We spoke with Helton not long before he was about to leave for a tour of the East Coast. Here is some of what he shared with us.

I’d never heard Jazz in High school and then in the 90’s I got nose-deep / tunnel vision into Jazz. Anything between1930 and the maybe early 60’s before Coltrane started doing the free thing.  I did that for years but, after I’d been playing for 10 years, I felt a little limited.  With traditional Jazz there are rules and structures.  You play a certain way because that’s what people want to hear and what the people you play with want you to do. That was fun but there was always that nagging feeling.  Why do I have to play these notes?  Haven’t these notes been played for fifty years?  As I played all these restaurants, hotels and weddings – I became more disgruntled.  You’ve got your tuxedo, you’re playing “Girl from Impanema” again, and in the back of your mind it’s gnawing at you, “This is not you.  You’re not a robot.” You know, you’re playing the Jazz gig but you’re not playing JAZZ; you’re just regurgitating what the real guys did fifty years ago and playing for people who don’t care and aren’t listening.

But as I started expanding, I started getting into that somewhat structured Free Jazzy thing and it kept evolving. The real pinnacle for me was when Peter Kowald, the great European Free Jazz bassist, came to town in 2001.  He did a three-month tour of the United States where he flew to New York, bought a late 70’s station wagon, took his bass, and did solo concerts – one nighters along the South, up the West Coast, across the top, and back to New York to play Vision Fest. Dave Dove contacted me because they needed an amplifier and I said, “Sure.” He did a free bass solo set for an hour and twenty minutes with no break! At that time, I thought that I was pretty open-minded but I couldn’t believe this. I was like, “That’s what I want to do!  I want to do THAT!”  And more importantly, I really love playing solo.  So after that, I found something that I felt very strongly about, it was like the crazier the better.

When you hear my compositions, they don’t have any traditional structure.  In 2000, I started writing these chamber pieces because I really like woodwinds and it almost sounds like two people practicing near each other.  It’s hard to call it a composition but that’s how I hear it; that’s the way I write. I hear one guy doing this while another is doing that – and if it isn’t correct by the rules of composition, then maybe it’s not a “composition” by that standard but that’s how I write and I write what I want to hear.

So, after I saw Peter Kowald, I started cultivating my solo career and I took a note out of his page.  I did a West Coast tour and it was great.  It was exactly what I wanted but it was rough because I’m just a musician so I don’t have income if I’m not working and doing something like this you’re paying for hotels, your driving your car and no gig is going to play anything.  So after that it was, “OK, whatever I have to do to keep that going I’ll do.  If I have to keep whoring myself out, I’ll do that as long as, every once in a while, I can go and do my true thing.”

Then, about a year ago, my fiancé and I started a business – it’s nothing creative – but it’s allowed me to not have to play gigs.  I mean, I still do them because all my friends are musicians and I do love playing Jazz but now I’m very picky.  If you see my name, it’s usually solo or with The Core Trio. If it’s not going to be beautiful and amazing, then I don’t want to do it just to wank-off so I’m a little bit particular about who I play with.  The tendency is “let’s put that guy and that guy together and see what happens.” I’m OK with that but it’s not my ultimate goal.  My ultimate goal is to have that amazing connection with the people I’m playing with and convey that and connect to the audience.  That’s where the magic is for me.

About a year ago, I was on a West Coast tour with my fiancé and we were bouncing ideas off each other about how to connect to people so we came up with the idea of video because most people are visually oriented. I’d met Jonathan [Jindra] who’d booked me to play Binarium and we started doing this project. I wanted a video of me playing in a weird space and we found a great space over in the East part of town and when he sent me his draft, he’d incorporated some shots that he had just taken around town of sewer pipes, construction sites, and things like that.  That was a hell of a lot more interesting than just watching me. I liked it but Jonathan is a ridiculous perfectionist so he just kept tweaking it until I had to rip it out of his hands.  Now The Core Trio has a CD/DVD coming out hopefully in March of a performance at Diverse Works that was recorded by another friend of mine.

But I like that I can do all this.  I can to do a solo bass tour, put out a DVD, go play a musical, go play with the Baytown symphony, go play with a gypsy band, play with an R&B group…In reality, there are very few things I don’t want to do.

 

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The Core Trio w/ Robert Boston


The configuration of musicians on this disc are engaging in an

improvisational dialogue of high level interplay,high concept,intense

musicality and exquisite taste.Nothing is rushed,nothing is forced,

everything feels natural-and thou experimental in sound nothing sounds

brittle,they all understand the resonance of pitch as it relates to the

overall sound world of this group. Every group member feels their own space

while simultaneously feeling how it relates to the gestalt of the whole

ensemble effect--oh and they make every pitch and gesture count, with

resonance.Every gesture has its own momentum that either moves the music

forward or sits for its own portrait in a zen like way.These guys obviously

know music,the music here creates its own time and space but is an outgrowth

of internalizing modern music in its many many facets.And what's most

important the players sound like there is a real sense of joy in the making

of the music that   can't but help to rub off on the listener-in other words

this is a beautiful,beautiful experience.


  Matthew Shipp



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Thomas Helton and Jonathon Jindra

“I”


"The stunning DVD, I,  is a thirty minute sonic and visual meditation by bassist/improviser Thomas Helton and videographer Jonathan Jindra. Helton transforms the most fundamental aspects of sound starting with low longtone double stops and patiently morphs through various techniques- beating tones, glissandos, tremolos, multiphonics, playing with two bows, simultaneous arco pizzicato.  They are juxtaposed with shifting images of  industrial city-scapes, subterranian vistas, refuse, states of light and insect evolutions inter-cut with wonderful footage of Helton performing. It is not so much about sound complexity and virtuosity though it exists, but rather a personal expression that projects the beauty of what is normally discarded."


-Mark Dresser