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Monday, June 23, 2014

Bass duets, bass quartets ... and many more basses

There aren't too many bass-bass albums around. If you're interested, please check the "bass-bass duo" tag on the right of this blog and you come across some interesting albums.

Peter Frey & Daniel Studer - Zwirn (Creative Sources, 2013) ***½

Swiss bassists Peter Frey and Daniel Studer have been playing in duo settings together for many years now, and released albums in that format, first electro-acoustically, now primarily without electronics, but the vision of sonic exploration and the search for new dynamics of interaction remains at the fore of their work. The third player in their duo is the ambient silence of the space they work in, which can be gradually intensified through small alterations in the sonic void, or shred to pieces through some violent outbursts of energy. No need to tell you that this album requires open ears, and both musicians are so well attuned that the end result is a compelling listen.

Peter Kowald & Damon Smith - Mirrors Broken But No Dust (BPA, 2013) ****

One of the most spectacular of all bassists was the late Peter Kowald, a true revolutionary on the instrument, someone who brought the entire physical aspect of the instrument - and the player - into the game, a game that really had to go the extra mile, that required the utmost physical and mental and emotional efforts to break through the average and the mediocre, and to open ears to something new, something unheard of, unthought of. He is in the company here of Damon Smith, and the interaction is truly excellent, as you can expect from such a duo. The album itself is a re-issue, now on Smith's own "Balance Point Acoustics" label.

Peter Kowald writes the following on the liner notes :"Recently, I saw a drawing of Man Ray, "Broken Mirrors" 1932, the time of Cubism having been around for a while. I remembered the paintings (on flat canvas) seeing the subjects – often guitars – from different sides and angles at the same time. Broken mirrors don't reflect things with a straight or plane view, but rather in particles, from various angles, out of different positions and in different directions . . . and this is what we try to do with sounds, rhythms, particles of melody, all kinds of musical materials. The idea of dust/no dust on mirrors comes out of the Zen teachings, that is that. When Damon and I met in these days in April 2000 and played, it didn't feel like too much dust being around. I mean that not only because this music is always freshly made, but more even because it is just what it is, not more and not less. That, in this world of things lacking or been blown up so much, looks like a quite dustfree quality". 

You can listen and download the album from "Bandcamp".

Barre Phillips' Crossbows ‎– The Hunters (Gligg, 2013) ***½

Bass duets are unusual, but ensembles with only double bass players are even more rare. The ones that come to mind are William Parker's "Requiem", and then JC Jones' Deep Tones For Peace initiative, both highly recommended pieces of music.

On this album, American bassist Barre Phillips invited Clayton Thomas, Jiri Slavik, John Eckhardt and Sebastian Gramss for a concert at La Chapelle Ste. Philomène, Puget-Ville in France. The performance consists of twelve pieces, of which only three have all five musicians interact together. The other pieces are either solo bass improvisations - one for each musician - or duets, making this an incredibly varied and at the same time balanced album, despite the restrictions of the line-up.

In terms of music, you also gets lots of variation, from the quiet minimalism of Eckardt's "Phénomène" over the electroacoustic singularity of Clayton Thomas' "Forewarned Fox" to the more dense "Pack-A-By" performed by all five, yet it never gets wild, the music remains subdued, disciplined, contemplative, intense and free, and with a depth you can expect from both instruments and players.

Sequoia - Rotations (Evil Rabbit, 2014) ****

The double bass quartet consisting of Antonio Borghini, Meinrad Kneer, Klaus Kürvers and Miles Perkin has a totally different approach to music, more visceral, more direct and raw at times, which doesn't mean that it isn't very disciplined. The sounds of the individual instruments are extremely well captured and remain identifiable throughout, which allows for a clarity and sharpness of interaction even in the deepest plucked tones.

It's hard to say whether the music is composed at times, yet it is clear that some patterns emerge and that every track has its own character and vision, offering us incredible sonic experiences, not only in the long "Rotations", which gradually evolves from repetitive plucked and bowed phrases into absolute sonic mayhem, but also in the shorter pieces such as "Interlude 1", which sounds like little girls hopping in the street, to the more dark and ominous sounds of "Inside". 

The great risk about bringing like-minded musicians playing the same instrument in one band, is that you risk having music that is focused on the instrument, and that is a pitfall which is gloriously avoided here. The music itself stands at the center of the performance, but it could only be brought to live by having these instruments and musicians. Of all the albums in the review list here, this is possibly the one that will be most compelling to non-bass players. 

A great album. 

Sebastian Gramss Bassmasse ‎– Schwarm (Gligg, 2013) ***

To top it all, you get Sebastian Gramss Bassmasse, with no less than fifty bass players : Achim Tang, Alexander Linster, André Nendza, Barre Phillips, Bernd Keul, Carl Christian Weber, Christian Ramond, Conrad Noll, Constantin Herzog, Daniel Kress, Daniela Petry, David Helm, David Sanchez, Denis Arnold, Dieter Manderscheid, Edith Langgartner, Efstathios Diamantidis, Georg Wolf, Gerd Brenner, Gregor Schwellenbach, Hendrika Enzian, Jakob Kühnemann, Jan Oestreich, Jan Tengeler, Jochen Schaal, Johannes North, Jonas Lohse, Josha Oetz, Jörg Spix, Lukas Keller, Marcel Richards, Martin Burk, Martin Pofahl, Meike Krautscheid, Michael Büning, Nicolai Amrehn, Peter Malik, Philipp Stade, Reza Askari, Richard Eisenach, Robert Landfermann, Robert Schmidt, Sebastian Schaffmeister, Stefan Berger, Stefan Rauh, Svenja Doeinck, Tetsu Saitoh, Ulla Oster, Ulrich Phillipp, Volker Heintze and Zacharias Fasshauer. 

The composition consists of six parts, totalling a little more than half an hour. The fifty musicians are broken down into five subgroups, and the soloists are Barre Philips, Tetsu Saitoh, Achim Tang, Uli Phillip and Robert Landfermann. The overall result is probably less than expected, which may be the result of the impossibility to capture all these instruments perfectly by the sound engineer. Sure, there is lots to hear, with moments of obvious tension and drama, yet it comes across as if the gimmick of setting up a performance with fifty bassists seemed more important than the actual quality of the music. I'm sure that was not the intention.


Colin Green said...

Interesting reviews Stef.

By the way, Barre Phillips is American, not British and has lived in France for many years. I recommend the following double bass duo albums with him:

Music for Two Basses (ECM, 1971) - with Dave Holland

Arcus (Maya, 1991) - with Barry Guy

Stef said...

Thanks Colin, I'll rectify that. I made the wrong assumption because he's clearly more linked to the European free improv scene than to US music.
Thanks for pointing it out.