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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

John Russell & Paul G. Smyth - Ditch School (Weekertoft, 2017) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

Take the title as an imperative, if you wish. Occasionally, I think of it as the name of a school about ditches, either digging them or studying their history, geology, charting best practices, and so on. It’s the effect of John Russell’s guitar and Paul G. Smyth’s piano playing, each performance sounds like one thing and its other, often at the same time. I’ve remarked on this kind of disorientation in reviews of other Weekertoft albums, it’s woven into the fabric of the music. And the fabric of Ditch School is finely woven, indeed.

The title track, “Ditch School,” opens with Russell and Smyth duetting on strings, Smyth playing inside the piano and Russell at the edges of his guitar. There’s a physicality to the performance, straight away, that adds substantial weight to the improvisation. To say “Ditch School” accretes over the course of its 37 minutes is a slight mischaracterization. Rather than building towards a point near the end, Russell and Smyth seem to be exploring space in a thoroughly thought-provoking manner: at times, there’s not enough, as tones clash uncomfortably; other times, stretches of near-silence marked by delicate tremors create an amazing, sustained tension. There’s a section, near the very end (it’s around the 32:00 mark), where Smyth and Russell’s simultaneous runs provide the listener a distinct feeling of release. Tension, having built for over half an hour, feels as if it’s about to be set free, and yet. A hallmark of both Russell and Smyth’s styles, a countermove going where you least expect. Instead of settling, the duo improvisation continues, unbroken, layering tension upon tension, teasing out the very upper registers of guitar and piano and ceasing, rather abruptly, considering.

The briefer second track, “Kinneigh” (presumably named for a village in County Cork), opens in a mellower mood. Russell strums lightly, as Smyth improvises a line that could easily be repurposed for a through-composed melody. His playing here is also slightly more open than on “Ditch School,” reflecting the emotional shift from track to track, perhaps reflecting too a shift in the audience’s mood. In some ways, it’s hard to tell because the music has kept me at the edge of my seat each time I’ve listened. Moments, like the final minutes of “Kinneigh,” I’ve held my breath for absurdly long times, not wanting to upset the balance in my ears.

Ditch School
was recorded live in 2014, at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, Ireland, part of a run that had Smyth in duo performances with saxophonist Alan Wilkinson and trombonist Sarah Gail Brand. One (I mean me, of course, but hopefully you, too) hopes that as Weekertoft continues, eventually these, and other, performances will see light of day.