Attention Screen Takes Flight at Yamaha

How am I to convince music lovers that this CD is markedly different from Attention Screen's first two live CDs?

The question kept running through my head as I marveled at the breadth and maturity of Attention Screen's remarkable improvisations during a pre-concert sound check in the Piano Salon of Yamaha Artist Services, Inc. (YASI), at 689 Fifth Avenue, in the heart of Manhattan.

Attention Screen impressed even more at the public concert the following night, April 24, 2010. As the band members engaged in one improvisational miracle after another, fearlessly exploring new territory, the beauty and inventiveness of their playing astounded me.

Yet the question kept nagging. What could I do to convince those who might be tempted to dismiss the evening as yet another experiment in weirdness that Attention Screen's live performance at the YASI Piano Salon was an animal entirely different from those recorded by John Atkinson in February 2007 for Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2), and in fall 2006 and spring 2008 for Live at Otto's Shrunken Head Tiki Bar & Lounge (CD, Stereophile STPH020-2)? The differences were not merely of ambience and vibe; the increase in musical coherence was striking.

Convincing disbelievers would not be an easy task. After all, Attention Screen was founded by a fellow contributing editor at Stereophile, Robert J. Reina, and recorded by our editor, John Atkinson. No one in his or her right mind would expect me to do anything but praise all concerned. How could I establish that my praise is genuine?

If only, I thought, I could get people to sample the CD's first two tracks, "Sleeping Metronomes Lie" and "Ear Topology." The former begins simply, with Bob Reina laying down a beguiling theme on the Yamaha AvantGrand N3 electronic piano. After variations on the theme, it begins to morph chromatically. Despite a very low, ominous rumble from Chris Jones' fretless bass guitar, matters seem under control until a single splash of cymbal from percussionist Mark Flynn opens wide the improvisational gates.

Way off on the left, in language all his own, Don Fiorino enters the conversation on electric guitar. As Chris begins to rumble, melodic themes slowly crumble, and the music transports players and listeners to a universe where galaxies could collide at any moment. Without notice, Bob shifts into swinging bebop mode, and Mark's percussion strokes even out. Even Chris stops rutting in the mud long enough to bop along. Only Don continues on his own path, absorbed in his groove. It's quite the ride, building in intensity until, quite unexpectedly, the players discover they have reached the end.

"Ear Topology, an 11-minute "space music special" (to borrow John Atkinson's words), starts as if from afar. As Chris' fretless bass guitar engages in a wordless, outer galaxy call-and-response with Don's echoing strings, drummer Mark's beautifully judged percussion subtly frames and deepens the experience. Without warning, ET or his distant cousin appears on the scene. As he attempts to get a word in edgewise, Mark pounds just a bit harder, as though trying to cleave an opening between ET's galaxy and his own. Only at 3:23 does Bob sound his first modest arpeggio on the Yamaha piano. Where the music goes from there provides proof of the quartet's freshness.

In subsequent tracks more miracles await. Especially fascinating is the juxtaposition of "Yamanization," recorded at the concert, and "The Deer and Buffalo God Churches," recorded at the sound check the day before. Don begins both inquiries with the same short, catchy riff on acoustic guitar. What happens on each version after that is vastly different, yet so equally compelling as to serve as proof of the band's ever-inventive quest for musical and spiritual unity.

Whether you listen to Live at the Yamaha Piano Salon (CD, Stereophile STPH021-21) by itself or in the context of the two previous Attention Screen CDs, you'll hear an ensemble whose members are wide open to new musical possibilities. The quartet's music is all its own, and all it needs to be. Inhabiting an improvisational universe that not only crosses and confounds genres but also makes futile any attempt at categorization, Attention Screen has come of age.

But perhaps I get ahead of myself. Time to let John Atkinson discuss how and why he recorded the alchemical quartet known as Attention Screen in Yamaha's YASI Piano Salon.—Jason Victor Serinus