AMN Reviews: Roscoe Mitchell / Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter – A Railroad Spike Forms The Voice (2021; Balance Point Acoustics)

This meeting of four singular improvisational voices came together in 2014, and enjoyed its first release earlier this month. Ewen, Smith, and Walter had been performing as a trio for several years, and found themselves in the San Francisco Bay Area, not far from where Mitchell was teaching at Mills College. A gig was set up at Oakland’s Duende restaurant and was recorded as a continuous 72-minute piece.

Ewen, Smith, and Walter give Mitchell plenty of room, which he uses to form rolling soprano sax lines that are a near-constant throughout. Ewen’s guitar work is textural, gritty, with plenty of scraping and extended techniques. She is perhaps the most overtly experimental of the four. Smith’s bass is subtle but not subdued, also employing extended techniques with discordant sawing and deep notes sliding up and down his double bass. And true to form, Walter brings a dose of no wave and metal drumming to his free improv, with heavy pounding and busy patterns. The quartet navigates numerous moods, tempos, and volumes, from all-out blasts of energy to quieter passages. But there is a steady exploration throughout – a searching discordance – as they break apart into subgroups and solo playing then merge back together.

While the end result can be deconstructed and analyzed, Mitchell, Ewen, Smith, and Walter take the “just play” approach. Thus, there is no need to over-intellectualize what they are doing. Their improvisation is creative, outside, and reflects their combined decades of intuition and experience. Very well done.

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