Sunday 4 January 2009

Four On Evan Parker's Psi

Volume is double bassist John Edwards’ unintentional attempt to establish, once and for all, his name in the gallery of the greats of this instrument. This solitary recital, totally conceived around the comprehensive mistreatment of the entirety of the bass components, is at the same time an extremely composite, splendidly harmonious statement, in which Edwards only needs to recur to an exclusive source of inspiration – his own imagination – to produce tangibly malleable silhouettes and concrete stabs at the customary metaphors characterizing an unaccompanied performance. This kind of forward-looking approach to improvisation doesn’t need hornblowing: we’re given undressed, yet nutritious food for the ears, down to the tiniest module of sound. Each piece seems to focus on a single subject matter while extrapolating the innate virtues and the gist of elemental artistry, which in this case coincides with an advanced form of craft. One has the impression of observing the protagonist at work, bent on the machine aiming to turn the empirical experience into a logical specification of the myriads of often hardly audible occurrences defining the timbral complexion of the whole act. We could easily assert that the success of this CD derives from the fact that listeners are drawn to pay attention to the instrument’s assorted voices rather than trying to lay emphasis on the individual component behind the music. This would be thoroughly unfair to Edwards, whose cogent sensitiveness is the actual raison d'être of another excellent record for solo contrabass from this label, shortly after John Eckardt’s extraordinary Xylobiont.

On the opposite side (and size) stands the London Improvisers Orchestra, “a remarkable musical and social phenomenon” to quote Evan Parker’s passionate liners. We can now enjoy the four Improvisations For George Riste thanks to the zeal of Tim Fletcher, who keeps an archive of most concerts featuring improvising musicians in the city. For about ten years, LIO has been playing a monthly gig at The Red Rose, thus developing a network of strict links between the artists that, more or less regularly, join these performances. This is the collective’s eight release, which includes three segments from 2003 and one from 2007, the length ranging from nearly 12 to over 22 minutes. Trying to set into specific words the dynamics involved in the sonic expression of a group consisting of up to 20 elements would be rather pointless, especially in consideration of the calibre of the implicated players, a veritable who’s who of contemporary improvisation comprising old warhorses such as Parker, Lol Coxhill, Steve Beresford and Harry Beckett and younger exponents like Roland Ramanan, Caroline Kraabel and – guest in the first track – Amy Denio, plus the bulk of the usual suspects (Butcher, Hallett, Northover, Fell, etcetera). A complex architecture of indefiniteness finds its ultimate realization in the continuous shift from edginess to stillness - and vice versa - that typifies various sections of the pieces, usually taking shape from sparse suggestions and probing hints. The instrumentalists channel their intuition towards the margins of different latent tonalities, instantly pulverized by the inside power of the acoustic creation. The weighty humanity of this music is often in nearly painful evidence, aesthetically improbable mechanics miraculously connected and working yet still frail, almost in danger of being scattered around by the ever-strong winds of an uncongenial conformism. But LIO seems to be willing to resist to that threat.

Australian-born saxophonist and flutist Ray Warleigh is one of the most important British session men, having worked with everyone but the kitchen sink (including, among the myriads, Nick Drake). A deep knowledge of the melodic connotations of an improvisation stands as the basis of his soloing, of which Rue Victor Massé contains a comprehensive showcase. Warleigh placed himself and percussionist Tony Marsh in the latter’s girlfriend’s apartment situated in the namesake street, armed with a single microphone and a couple of carpets as dampers. “What I play is absolutely unpremeditated”, declares the protagonist; still, there’s a definite “late-night aroma” in these tracks, where both the homemade feel of the instrumental dialogue and the very value of the notes played lets us think more to a friendly set of relaxed, nearly nonchalant exchanges than an intense effort to carve something truly meaningful from the wood of this meeting. Being the man a notorious perfectionist (hence the fact that his music is definitely under-recorded) I found this release a little strange in that, in all honesty, it misses the target of excitement of several metres. This is cool, tasteful but not memorable stuff and Parker, ironically self-defining a “producer manqué” in the sleeve annotations, seems prone to admit that these recordings were released almost obligatorily after lots of unproductive tries.

Rarely this writer met a level of near-perfection in an improvisational setting such as what’s reflected by Alexander Von Schlippenbach’s Friulian Sketches, in my opinion this poker’s ace of hearts. Friuli is a region of Northern Italy bordering with Slovenia and Austria, Udine – the place where this recording occurred – being the area’s main city. From there hails saxophonist Daniele D’Agaro, here performing – in masterful fashion – on clarinet, in some instances the real hero of this chef d’oeuvre. The man is able to steadily write repeated epitaphs for the absence of imagination, his spectacularly sparkling timbre in continuous evidence whenever the music urges him to intervene; tightly reined melodic visions and dynamically considerate technical uniqueness are but two of the many facets of a truly reputable rare talent. Of the three protagonists – old hands in the German pianist’s Globe Unity Orchestra - cellist Tristan Honsinger appears like the one whose energy is barely controlled, often accompanying the playing with guttural emissions and intense breathing. His instrumental voice is the contrasting factor per antonomasia, oscillating between a sinister kind of smartness and the rootedness in the iconography of unpredictability. Schlippenbach plays marvellously throughout, a double-edged inspiration at the service of the muse of perfectionism. Crystal-clear chords and fearsome runs distinguish this virtuoso’s art from the mass of pretenders, pitiless demonstrations of superior nimbleness touching the heart of the knowledgeable ones while incinerating the illusions of the reprehensible plink-plonkers who memorize a couple of exercises to show off amidst equally desperate companions of calamity. A fantastic release, very highly recommended – especially to the many who still need to realize what “musician” in actual fact means.