Phil Minton + Audrey Chen + Guy Segers + Peter Jacquemyn + Teun Verbruggen – Quintet (Sub Rosa)
Phil Minton + Audrey Chen – By the Stream (Sub Rosa)
Both of these albums, released simultaneously by Sub Rosa, feature the unique talents of Phil Minton and Audrey Chen. Quintet was apparently designed to see how Minton and Chen work together in a jazz-improvisation setting, while the duo album was meant to showcase the particular, and peculiar, vocal improvisatory talents of these two artists.
Chen came to free music by way of years spent at a conservatory studying cello. Indeed, she plays cello as well as using her voice on the Quintet album. Compared to Minton, who has been honing his craft for decades, she’s a newcomer, but she’s seasoned enough to have developed her own approach to ensemble and duo performance. Minton, as mentioned, is well-known for his astounding vocal abilities. I won’t begin to list the sounds he’s capable of here, but they are legion, and uniformly uncanny.
That said, both he and Chen seem to be somewhat at a loss for what to do in the quintet setting. Their performances are mostly sublime, but they don’t seem to be able to engage with the other three players: a drummer, an electric bassist (Guy Segers of Univers Zero), and a double-bassist. And the same goes for the trio. One gets the sense that Minton and Chen are in the same studio as the trio, but neither group knows quite how to proceed in terms of the other, except for Chen’s cello playing, which seems very sympathetic to the group. If listened to for the performances of Chen and Minton, this disc can be quite enjoyable. The last two tracks, dominated by the jazz trio, show that they have a tight rapport and can even bring a little funk into the proceedings. It would be nice to hear more from that trio on its own merits.
By the Stream, the Minton + Chen duo album, in contrast, is a thing of wonder. On every track Minton and Chen come across as alien creatures conversing with each other, either as old friends, or as wary strangers, unsure whether to embrace or fight. On this album, Chen forgoes the cello and puts all of her power into her voice. She tends toward a drone in her vocal improvisations, holding one note for extended periods of time, while Minton is everything and everywhere else – the wind, the voice of a commanding soldier, an existentially distraught man at his very nadir, a baby, – all things that seem to wrap, snake-like, around the solid pole that Chen provides with her steadier vocals. Similar to the work that Jaap Blonk has done with Maja Ratkje, these 14 tracks are otherworldly meetings in a universe that you should be glad you only are able to visit sonically. Beautiful, but at the same time frightening, and as with all Minton’s vocal improv work, completely decentralizing.