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THE MUFFINS – BAKERS’ DOZEN (2022) (Cuneiform)

A lovingly curated limited edition box set containing 12 CDs, a DVD of the entire NEAR fest 2005 concert and a 76-page book will get Muffins fans salivating and, indeed, fans of avant-garde progressive jazz-rock should be pretty excited about this release as well.

Named after a chance delivery of blueberry muffins, the founder members, in Washington D.C, were Dave Newhouse, who over the years HAS played a Fender Rhodes, organ, woodwinds, saxes, bass clarinet, tenor recorder and harmonica – none of these are exclusive lists, Billy Swann on bass, tenor sax and alto recorder) and Michael Zentner (guitar, violin). Other members over the years have included Tom Scott (saxes, clarinets, oboe, flute, soprano recorder, xylophone), Mike Bass (drums, xylophone, acoustic piano), Paul Sears (drums, soprano sax) and Thomas Frasier-Scott (saxes, clarinets, flute, oboe, bassoon). In addition, there are ‘voices’, various percussive instruments and just about anything they could lay their hands on: plastic tubes, bike horns, penny whistles, whatever. There have been many other members on the journey as well and the band backed FRED FRITH on his “Gravity” LP.

There were two phases of the band: from 1974 to 1981 and 1993-2015. Despite the time period, The Muffins’ discography is short: “Manna/ Mirage” (1978), an excellent start with just four tracks, but containing so much: Cuneiform’s own Steven Feigenbaum (see interview on DISS site) plays guitar on two tracks; “185” (1981), originally ten tracks, but with seven bonus added on the Cuneiform 1996 CD release; “Chronometers” (1993): the opening title track is deceptive as there 20 other tracks, mostly in the 2 to 3 minute range; “Bandwidth” (2002); “Double Negative” (2004); “Love Letter #2 – The Ra Sessions, outtakes from “Double Negative” and live improvisations with members of the SUN RA ARKESTRA including Marshall Allen on alto-sax – lots of horns on this one!); “Palindrome” (2010) and “Mother Tongue” (2012). The only other compilation I know of was “Open City” (1985) with demos, outtakes, radio and live excerpts.

The Muffins are closely linked to the Canterbury genre in its widest sense with comparisons to NATIONAL HEALTH, HATFIELD AND THE NORTH, MATCHING MOLE, SOFT MACHINE, HENRY COW, and further afield FRANK ZAPPA, NUCLEUS. SUN RA, MILES DAVIS and ANTHONY BRAXTON.

It is only possible to refer to a small number of the tracks on offer here. On the 14-minute long ‘Portable Hollow’ a 4-chord motif emerges after 2 minutes: there is violin, some dark piano chords, dextrous bass, sax blasts and runs, drum rolls, cymbal work, repeated spoken lines, with an emphasis on sound rather than cohesion; there is a welcome touch of pastoral in the flute work, clean guitar lines and haunting piano motif contrasting with some weird scrapings, fuzz bass and odd staccato guitar notes. Welcome to the world of The Muffins – enter if you dare! There are various ‘interludes’ showcasing the instrumental variety and versatility of the band. Some of the pieces are named after famous people like ‘Buzz Aldrin’ on a 19-minute long evocation that initially reminded me of EGG’s ‘Germ Patrol’ with its marching beat. The spacey brass is more suggestive of “Clangers” than a Moon landing! There will be an appeal to fans of SOFT MACHINE on this one, the sax and violin also complementing each other well: the walking bass driven post-bop jazz ending is a surprise! The more familiar I become with the music of The Muffins (and I have a long way to go) the more I think of a puzzle within an enigma, with a studious avoidance of getting in to too much of a groove, quixotic and bordering on hyperactive, but strangely compelling and fascinating.

The same tracks keep popping up here and there and a medley of ‘Monkey with the Golden Eyes’ and ‘Hobart Got Burned’, from the first album if memory serves, works well. I heard shades of EGG here, always a good thing to my ears and Mike Ratledge in the keys, and definitely some ZAPPA – these are merely touchpoints of course; the music is totally original.

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