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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Paul Dunmall, Phillip Gibbs, Alison Blunt, Neil Metcalfe, Hannah Marshall – I Look At You (FMR, 2015) ****½

By David Menestres

This week on the blog is all about Paul Dunmall. One of the great things about Dunmall is his recordings are never just about Dunmall. I Look At You, recorded at Birmingham Conservatoire at the beginning of July 2015, is most assuredly about the group, and a fine group it is, comprised of three strings (Philip Gibbs on acoustic guitar, Alison Blunt on violin, Hannah Marshall on cello) and two winds (Paul Dunmall on sax and clarinet, Neil Metcalfe on flute).

Individually the members of group possess virtuosic technique but thankfully this technique is only used in service of the group, never sounding flashy or cloying. The music is executed with clear intention and dedication to the group sound. There are no stand-out individuals on this album, just one beautiful sound produced by five excellent musicians.

On “Hoping,” the third track, the ensemble is particularly keen. The opening de-tuned cello lines heave with darkness, becoming vocal squalls before being joined by the violin in similar motion. The guitar joins in, providing a strong undertow to the duet. Dunmall’s clarinet and Metcalfe’s flute join in as the strings drop out, performing another duet on top of Gibbs’s guitar. Blunt’s violin comes back, joining the winds, pushing the music forward. And that’s just the first few minutes. From there, the band continues it’s slow, quiet explorations, with bursts of activity and an ominous energy bubbling just below the surface that guides the improvisation for another ten minutes or so.

The album consists for four tracks, the shortest at just over eleven minutes, the longest at just over sixteen. The music is highly complex, one could spend a semester in a university discussing the way the musicians interact with each other, producing an ever-shifting quilt of ideas and overlapping counterpoint. Despite the complexity, the music is constantly engaging, drawing the listener in closer and closer, wrapping them in an almost overwhelming warmth of ideas. I Look At You is an extraordinary example of what improvised music can be, something profoundly new, existing only in the moment. Thankfully this performance was well captured here by Simon Hall and Matthew O’Malley for a recording that manages to transmit the energy of the group very well.