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Twisted Villagers
The unholy alliances of nmperign and Heathen Shame

The problem I’m having right now is that, despite having listened to their music regularly for years, I’m still not sure how to describe what nmperign — the long-running Boston improv duo of trumpeter Greg Kelley and saxophonist Bhob Rainey — do. There’s nothing quite like an nmperign CD. Even now I’m dumping boxes of CDs onto my floor, trying to find something by nmperign so I can give you a play-by-play.

Before you ask, it’s pronounced "NIM-per-ine" (rhymes with limper shrine) and it’s spelled without capitalization. Kelley has attributed that idiosyncrasy to laziness, but anyone clever enough to derive a name from the Latin "ignotum per ignatius" ("the unknown through the more known") wouldn’t just go slack on his grammar. Perhaps it’s a nod to the lowercase improv scene in Boston — a scene featuring such like-minded artists as Howard Stelzer and Mike Bullock, of which nmperign have become the de facto leaders.

Notwithstanding that Rainey and Kelley cite free jazz as the stepping stone to the current improv style and that both play jazz-identified instruments, you’d never mistake them for Louis Armstrong, or even mid-’70s, coked-out Miles Davis. In fact, an uninitiated listener would be more likely to confuse 1999’s This Is nmperign’s 2nd CD (Twisted Village) with field recordings from an exorcism. Between long gaps of tense silence, Kelley and Rainey coax every manner of sound from their instruments, from the almost electronic squeals of a barely opened trumpet bell to the visceral grunts of a mouth barely attached to a reed.

I’ve described nmperign to friends as un-pretty music, a trumpet and sax being made to do terrible things. When I explain this to Kelley and Rainey late one night as we squeeze into a booth at Charlie’s Kitchen alongside their married friends and co-conspirators Wayne Rogers and Kate Village of Twisted Village Records, it’s clear they’ve heard it before.

"I was studying jazz, blah blah blah," Rainey begins. "I was actually pretty naive to a lot of the experimental stuff going on. I had this idea, like . . . I liked improvisation, but why did it always have to be a bunch of lines over a bunch of chords? Why can’t you develop skills in improvising things other than pretty melodies?"

"I went to a conservatory too, studied classical music and everything," Kelley adds. "And I had enough bad experiences with conductors being fascists that I decided that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I moved to Boston and met Bhob. We were both playing with this pianist/percussionist named Masashi Harada, and I remember driving home with Masashi and him saying, ‘You and Bhob, man . . . you guys shouldn’t play together. It’s terrible.’ "

Fortunately, the pair didn’t heed Harada’s advice. Next weekend, September 23-25, they’ll be at the epicenter of the second annual ErstQuake festival, at the Collective Unconscious performance space in New York City. Curated by the New York labels Erstwhile and Quakebasket, ErstQuake is a world-class showcase of improvisers. And though a proposed nmperign recording for Erstwhile Records has been shelved, founder Jon Abbey seems eager to feature Kelley and Rainey. The duo will perform with Maine-based tape loop maestro Jason Lescalleet, and Kelley will play in a trio with David Daniell and Sean Meehan. (nmperign have a CD with Lescalleet due next month from Intransitive.) Within the orbits of their peers, Rainey and Kelley won’t have any trouble finding their stride. But their most interesting and unexpected collaboration came last year with another pair of underground Bostonians.

"We’d known Damon & Naomi for a while," Bhob explains when I ask why nmperign are playing horns on the ex–Galaxie 500 members’ latest, The Earth Is Blue (20/20/20). "I guess Damon was listening to a lot of Brian Wilson and Scott Walker and he just thought ‘We should have horns on this record’ and asked us to do it. Though I don’t think he’d heard anything that showed that we could actually play music at that point. He just trusted us."

In a scene where most releases are guaranteed to sell only a few hundred copies, most artists have chosen to go the DIY route. But nmperign have stayed the course, releasing almost everything on CD or vinyl on actual record labels. (The lone exception, Salt Peanuts, a 12-minute CD-R featuring half a dozen sloppy takes of the Dizzy Gillespie classic, was limited to 80 copies, no great loss.) The bulk of nmperign’s discography is on Twisted Village, and it’s no coincidence that it too is Boston-based. Wayne Rogers has been operating the Twisted Village record store out of a Harvard Square basement since the mid ’90s and running the label portion for even longer. He’s learned to keep his friends close and his label mates closer. "Unless we can drive and see the person in about 20 minutes, they’re not on the label. I just like the idea of a local label. There is a kind of æsthetic, and towns do have distinct flavors."

That’s not to say the flavors can’t meld. The latest Twisted Village release, Speed the Parting Guest, comes from Rogers, Village, and Kelley under the name Heathen Shame. Kelley’s atonal squawking is still present, but amplified and distorted so as to mesh with the psych-rock guitars that Rogers and Village tote from their main group, Major Stars (who headline O’Brien’s next Friday as part of the NEST Festival). Speed the Parting Guest is a wonderful, raucous din from start to end. True to form, it’s completely indescribable.

Major Stars | O’Brien’s, 2 Harvard Ave, Allston | Sept 23 | 617.782.6245 | Nest info: www.nest2005.com | ErstQuake info: www.erstwhilerecords.com/live

Issue Date: September 16 - 22, 2005
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