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Carlos Niño & Friends - More Energy Fields, Current Music Album Reviews

Carlos Niño & Friends - More Energy Fields, Current Music Album Reviews
Reworking improv sessions featuring frequent collaborators like Sam Gendel, Jamael Dean, and Laraaji, the L.A. bandleader and percussionist shows his contemplative side.

The isolation of the last 15 months must have been hard on Carlos Niño. For years, the L.A. percussionist, DJ, and arranger has gathered together a rotating cast of pals to create a series of records under the name Carlos Niño & Friends. The loose, improvisatory structures of their playing, and Niño’s ingenious ability to stitch the best ideas together into blankets of comforting sounds, give these albums a charisma that smooths over the often difficult nature of the music, which borrows in equal measure from free jazz, new age, and hip-hop. In the same way that you’re able to follow your closest buds to conversational places you wouldn’t dream of approaching with your coworkers, the warmth that permeates Niño’s music disguises just how challenging some of it can be.

More Energy Fields, Current feels colored by recent circumstances. It is more muted and less jumpy than a typical Carlos Niño & Friends record. And while it abides by his typically kinetic production ethos, the spaces through which it wanders are emptier and less populous than ever before. It’s fascinating to hear Niño working in such a blue mode—this is a guy who made a record called Bliss On Dear Oneness, after all. While the music here can sometimes sound unsure of itself, More Energy Fields, Current shows a new side of Niño, and it proves that his abilities as a producer can move beyond the wide-eyed good vibes that have always shined within his work. Pieced together in a time of great distance, More Energy Fields, Current is the sound of Carlos Niño finding—or maybe creating—solace.

As usual, Niño is working with material sourced from an enviably talented group of friends. Frequent collaborators Sam Gendel, Nate Mercereau, Jamael Dean, Jamire Williams, and Laraaji all return, while Shabaka Hutchings is welcomed into the fold for the first time. Most of the material here was recorded in 2018 and 2019 in long improv sessions that Niño edited together over the last year, shuffling and layering with a collagist’s mindset and a pilgrim’s faith in the journey. Hutchings and Dean duet in opener “Pleasewakeupalittlefaster, please…,” the former’s rapidly cycling sax pitched quietly in the mix in a way that makes it feel like steam rising from the clean, clear chords of Dean’s piano. Dean’s playing is nearly funereal, momentarily rimmed with nostalgia’s warmth before going cold again; it feels like he and Hutchings are asking questions they know can’t be answered.

This sense of uncertainty hangs over many of these songs. Gendel always processes his sax through pedals in a way that makes it sound like the notes are being swallowed by the bell of the instrument as he voices them; it’s insular by design. But in the context of “ The World Stage, 4321 Degnan Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90008,” he, Dean, Niño, and drummer Randy Gloss are like people at the last table on a wedding seating chart: They make tentative conversation without quite falling into a natural rhythm, but the sense of occasion keeps things from feeling tense. Aaron Shaw’s tenor sax on “Now the background is the foreground.” blows from deep down an alleyway, straight from a noir fantasy of a rainy New York night, while the underlit mood of “Nightswimming”’s early moments share something of the sadness of the R.E.M. song of the same name; its synths shimmer like the reflection of water on a tunnel ceiling. While Niño is a master of 3D audio space, his willingness to leave so much blank gives his partners enough room to throw shadows. It can be incredibly moving.

Which is perhaps why the album’s least compelling moments come when it is most tightly composed. “Nightswimming” is shaken from its reverie by a beat from Dean, with the synths whirring like a rotary dial in response; suddenly, we’re in a chillwave song. Everything feels recognizable and all too familiar, as if the dream logic the album has conjured to this point has been banished by the harsh realities of a new day. The album’s players are at their most unified here, but the track paradoxically seems incomplete; the structure is so perfectly built, the lack of vocals gives it the air of an empty house. The opposite happens in “Salon Winds,” where Williams sets his drums on a skipping break and Shaw’s flute chases; the players leave one another too much space and struggle to figure out where to go. The music doesn’t need to cohere particularly well—normalizing the incoherent is one of Niño’s greatest strengths—but the group never produces any interesting points of departure, either.

These are unusual moments for Carlos Niño, when bringing the people he loves together doesn’t result in some kind of magic, and on More Energy Fields, Current, they’re rare. He, Dean, and Laraaji create slow swells of sound in “Ripples, Reflection, Loop,” their tidal energy moving through the fibers of Sharada Shashidhar’s voice even after the playing recedes and her wordless singing takes over. It’s clear that Niño is deeply affected by the waves he makes with his friends; his ability to remember the emotional arc of improv sessions from years ago testifies to how deeply he was listening in the moment. His connection with his fellow players goes beyond the rational, beyond the linguistic. Still, having assembled these songs in the midst of a year of profound isolation, he allowed two clearly spoken utterances to emerge from the mix with no digital manipulation: “please,” in “Iasos 79 ’til Infinity,” and “thank you,” in “Ripples, Reflection, Loop.” Both imply interdependence, mercy, and gratitude, the interaction of two people facing each other, one in need and the other willing to provide. They’re what passes between friends.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Carlos Niño & Friends - More Energy Fields, Current Music Album Reviews Carlos Niño & Friends - More Energy Fields, Current Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Thursday, May 20, 2021 Rating: 5

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