The ten tracks of Unknown Shores—an album from the quartet of bass clarinetist João Pedro Viegas, bass clarinetist/clarinetist Luiz Rocha, pianist Silvia Corda and double bassist Adriano Orrù—trace an arc from a fully realized, introverted exchange of lines that would be at home in a piece of Modernist chamber music, through a variety of abstract, acoustic musique concrète, and back to vigorous melodic interplay. It’s improvised music that’s well-thought out and consequently plays like a suite of intimately related parts.
From the opening moments, when Corda introduces a set of atonal motifs which she develops with variations and ornamentations, the music’s basic vocabulary is established. In a gradual, additive process the other players enter, ushered in by Orrù’s arco bass. The combination of instruments makes for intriguing contrasts and coincidences of sound, with the two reeds and bowed bass often fusing to one side and the piano offering creative opposition from the other. The four keep the textures open and polychromatic, breaking at times into changing configurations of twos and threes, and leavening conventional playing with episodes of extended techniques. All get solo space as well, which adds a further level of color affects to an already finely calibrated group sound. Recurring thematic material, much of it derived from atonal pitch sets introduced by the piano and picked up, replicated, refigured and refined by the reeds and bass, gives the music local cohesion and global continuity. If the music seems composed at times it’s largely due to the adept listening and apt responses of these four highly accomplished improvisers.
A release from the trio of pianist Karoline Leblanc and double bassist Nicolas Caloia, both of Montreal, and Portuguese violist Ernesto Rodrigues, Autoschediasm, recorded in June at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal, is an example of discerningly improvised timbral polyphony. From the first instant Leblanc, Caloia and Rodrigues reveals themselves to be possessed of a fine collective chemistry based on keen listening and sensitive responsiveness. Each leaves adequate room for the others’ instruments to breathe and to sound; their music is the product of what appears to be an unforced, natural rapport. As instrumentalists, all three are primarily colorists working with the full palettes that piano, double bass and viola make possible. The group’s fluency in handling color is especially evident on the second track, an exploration of space and tone. The strings are particularly creative here, with Rodrigues spinning out a full spectrum of unpitched sounds against Caloia’s harmonics, plucked and struck notes, and pressure bowing. Leblanc’s discreet interventions serve as the keystone holding Rodrigues’s and Caloia’s centripetal forces in place. By contrast, on the first piece the trio craft a long but coherent improvisation on the basis of skillfully handled dynamics and a seamless blend of conventional and extended techniques. Leblanc is a deft player, playing inside and outside the piano as needed, and alternating lead and support–or simply staying silent–when the collective sound seems to demand it. Caloia gets a robust sound and provides a firm grounding with his powerful mid and lower registers; Rodrigues’s sense of texture comes out nicely in his use of rapidly bowed layers or plucked and tapped points of sound.
Interstellar Space, John Coltrane’s fiery, harmonically dense set of duets with Rashied Ali, has been something of a paradigm for improvisations for saxophone and drums. This set by percussionist Ben Bennett and alto and soprano saxophonist Jack Wright represents a different kind of paradigm, one that posits color and texture as primary elements. The conventional relationship between pitch and timbre is reversed here in that in Bennett and Wright’s hands, the former becomes a carrier for the latter—when indeed it surfaces at all. For all its potentially broad applicability, Bennett and Wright’s embodiment of reed and percussion interaction nevertheless manages to remain sui generis.
Over the course of his career, Wright has embraced an especially kinetic variety of free jazz—such as would be licensed by Interstellar Space—only to turn around to explore a more austere, sonically constrained type of improvisation. At this stage he seems inclined to gather in and refine elements drawn from the entirety of his personal history, in the process producing a creative synthesis that, while rooted in each tendency he explored, is in the end neither one nor the other. Instead it consists in a unique sound and sense of continuity instantly identifiable as his own.
Throughout the three lengthy pieces Wright sets out timbres or techniques as motifs to delineate and vary, beginning with a long, slow tone that splits into overtones and then dissolves into energetic, bop-like phrases employing a limited set of pitches. From there, Wright draws on the wide-ranging vocabulary he’s developed over the years. He constructs long lines out of air notes or uses register jumps to create the illusion of a jagged melody counterpointed by an independent bassline. More introspective passages find him building phrases out of open spaces as well as sounds, which effectively contrast with frenetic moments sounding like rapid bits of broken birdsong.
Bennett’s sensibility perfectly complements Wright’s. Bennett’s starting point is a severely pared down drumkit—actually a single drum and no cymbals—out of which he creates a variegated texture of timbres using friction as well as percussive strikes. Bennett’s playing eschews rhythm or pulse in favor of pure color. He often mutes the drum to get a closed sound, scrapes brushes against any available surface, bounces objects off the drumhead, and plays on the metal as much as on the membrane. This allows him to play with dynamic as well as timbral contrasts, something that Wright does as well.
It isn’t surprising to find out that Bennett and Wright have been collaborating in different contexts for nearly ten years now. As this recording shows, during that time they’ve forged a uniquely sympathetic relationship in sound.
What happens when a folk instrument is taken out of its customary milieu and asked to extend itself into musical territory far afield? One answer at least can be found in The 1926 Floor Polish Variations, a release of music for melodeon, guitar, saxophone and an assorted miscellany of sound makers.
The melodeon—the folk instrument alluded to above—is a diatonic button accordion usually associated with sea chanties, Morris dancing and the like. Here, as played by Richard Sanderson, it becomes a formidable instrument in the experimental arsenal. Sanderson is able to extract dissonant overlays of tones, multiphonics, beats and air notes in addition to sounds drawn from the instrument’s mechanisms and casing. (Sanderson’s 2011 solo release Improvisations for Melodeon shows the sometimes surprising range this ostensibly simple instrument is capable of.) From that sonic foundation Daniel Thompson’s guitar and Mark Browne’s saxophone build a superstructure of contrasts and resemblances. The melodeon and saxophone often work together to create a knotted web of long tones, frequently taken from the wind instrument’s upper register. Who’s playing what becomes something of a guessing game until Browne declares himself with a rapidly convoluted line or unmistakable growl drawn from the lower register. Thompson binds and separates the other two with quick, staccato bursts or individual notes left to linger in the spaces between. Seemingly inevitable at the local level while unpredictable over the longer term, each of the four improvisations collected here move along from point to point over the course of a collective stream of consciousness attentively spun.
The sound files are accompanied by a PDF containing striking semi-abstract photographs and an evocative text by Browne.