Bent into Shape: Circuit Bent Organ Duo at Kerrytown Concert House
Grammy-nominated and Hammond-endorsed organist Brian Charette’s music encompasses a jostling, unruly mix of influences and timbres. While powered by groove-centric basslines, peppered with blistering bebop licks, and firmly grounded in the Hammond B-3 canon, Charette's sound also includes crunchy waveforms flowing from an array of analog synthesizers and custom electronics in his Circuit Bent Organ project.
Fresh off the summer release of its latest album, Kürrent -- which one reviewer described as the kind of soundscape that might result if Jimmy Smith and Kraftwerk collaborated on the score to a ‘80s video game -- two-thirds of the Circuit Bent Organ Trio returned to the Kerrytown Concert House on Monday, Oct. 23, to showcase some new tunes. The pared-down duo format left plenty of auditory space for the kind of sonic exploration and experimentation that Charette clearly thrives on, and Jordan Young’s sensitive and dynamic approach to the drums provided an impactful and grounding counterpoint.
The "Circuit Bent" element of the group’s moniker pays homage to a set of methods for customizing electronic instruments by de- and re-constructing their components to make them misfire in interesting and unpredictable ways, creating unusual and creative sonic textures. Although Charette had opted for a svelte, tour-friendly setup anchored by a petite-but-powerful Hammond SK-1 and a Korg Minilogue, the namesake electronics were laid out on a pedestal close at hand, all run through an interface on his propped-up iPhone.
The duo opened the set with "Doll Fin," the lead track from the new album. It's a broody, bass-y jam topped off with crystalline 8-bit harpsichord triplets. Pushing through some initial stiffness, they emerged limber and loose for the aptly named follow-up, "Time Changes," a tune that constantly plays around with different subdivisions of meter.
By the third tune, "Mano y Mano," Charette and Young were fully dialed in, each responding to slight shifts in the other’s playing on a dime. Young started incorporating his own synth and vocoder alongside his drumming, occasionally eliciting a spirited chuckle or whoop from Charette at his more feral contributions.
Throughout the show, Charette glided serenely between organ, synth, circuit-bent electronics, and grand piano like an utterly deadpan mad scientist or the inscrutable captain of a space ark. Occasionally, he squinted out into the audience, as if gauging his passengers’ comfort level with the remote, unfamiliar reaches of the galaxy he was ferrying them through.
Despite his placid bearing, Charette is a bona fide shredder; it just doesn’t seem like shredding is what he’s most interested in. Instead, he appears to delight in making the listener second-guess whether they are traveling through space or time, an effect achieved through an intuitive -- if sometimes unsettling -- use of sample-driven soundscapes:
Is that the mewl of a cat that once occupied this room or one that will in the future? Is that incantatory scat riff echoing now, but not here? Or here, but not now? Did my fax fail to send?
Young enhanced this mood of disorienting playfulness, granting the drummer’s great gift of suggesting different ways to package time.
The duo continued to absorb and surprise the audience until the end. Just when you thought you had acclimated to the satellite boops of deep space, Charette would decamp to the piano and dish up a lush, decidedly terrestrial interlude. He concluded the show by earnestly thanking the audience, which was a compact but engaged one: “We know this is difficult music, so we want you to know we really appreciate you coming out.”
Hopefully, Ann Arbor can give them a bigger crowd to challenge (and reward) next time.
Nicco Pandolfi is a freelance writer and a graduate student in Information Science at the University of Michigan. He mainly writes about what he mainly thinks about: music and food.