Controlled spontaneity is key to live shows and live albums. A focus on studio-like perfection drains the energy from the venue until all that remains is muddled crowd noise and the bluish haze of smartphone screens. On the flip side, few things are more disappointing than watching a show devolve into self-congratulatory noodling or sloppy chaos.
10th Letter’s newest release, 10th Letter Ensemble Live at Aisle 5, avoids both scenarios while remaining a deep exploration of the producer’s most recent work. The 8-track album was recently recorded during one of Aisle 5’s Open Circuit Sessions hosted by Volta Laboratory. It contains a seamless collection of songs from September’s Portals & Compasses along with the surprise addition of “Kaleidoscope,” one of the strongest cuts from the 2014 EP, Seasons.
Jeremi Johnson, the writer and producer behind 10th Letter, gently guides and directs the album through a variety of synthesizers and Ableton Live. However, it is his fellow performers who innovate on Johnson’s themes and paint over his lines, turning musical suggestion into a colorful universe. Saira Raza, one of Johnson’s most frequent collaborators, plays vibraphone in her trademark ethereal fashion alongside Dan Friedman (guitar), Gage Gilmore (bass) and Eric Grantham (drums). Together they explore new directions within Johnson’s songs, inundating the album with spirited surprises.
The average track length is over six minutes, often doubling the time of the studio versions, but nothing on the album becomes too monotonous, mostly due to Johnson’s ability to write tracks which constantly evolve rather than transitioning back and forth between themes. The skittering, frenetic energy of “Tea Ceremony” is both a good example of this evolution and one of the best songs on the record, retaining and expanding on the soul of the original track.
If Portals & Compasses was water, this album is fire. The delicate undertones which often struggle to survive in the live environment are left in the studio and replaced by jazzy, fusion-era flourishes. Here, the downtempo smoothness of the studio tracks is overgrown with sprawling solos and frantic beats, yet nothing feels indulgent or crowded. Much of Johnson’s music exists in the psychedelic plane between the ambient and experimental, but on this album the pendulum swings firmly towards explosive experimentation, a welcome journey into yet another aspect of 10th Letter’s fervent imagination.