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Friday, September 14, 2018

Solo bass - Celebrating 50 years of "Journal Violone"

By Stef Gijssels

In 1968, American bassist Barre Phillips recorded a solo bass performance as the basis for further compositions for Max Schubel, one of his friends, who thought the music could stand on its own, and that's how "Journal Violone", the first solo bass album, was released in 1969. The performance was straight, without electronic alterations, improvised, with Phillips using extended techniques to play alternative sounds, adding depth and resonance to his instrument, which was even more accentuated by being performed in a church.

Without knowing it, Phillips helped pave the way for the double bass to become a lead instrument in its own right, helping to get it out of its subservient role as a rhythm instrument. At the same time, he set the scene for many other solo bass albums to be released, some of which have been reviewed by us, and you can check them out here.

We're fifty years later, and that's a good moment to mention some of the more recent solo bass albums that were released this year and last.

We start with some of the masters, and Barre Phillips gets the credit to come first.

Barre Phillips - End To End (ECM, 2018) *****

Credit to ECM for releasing this album, although the initiative came from Phillips himself, who will turn 84 in October, and decided this would be his last solo album.

And the music is as you can expect it, offering the inventiveness and the wealth of ideas and approaches by someone who's lived it all, in studios and on stage, playing around the world in bands with very different styles from straight jazz to fusion and folk and avant-garde.

The thirteen relatively short pieces are little gems of bass playing, performed with uncanny precision and sound quality, both plucked and bowed, and all very intimate, personal, authentic. There are no grand gestures or moments of showing off. Quite to the contrary, it's a very introspective, humble love affair with the broad sound pallette of the instrument, as if the artist rejoices in every deep and subtle sound that resonates from the strings and the wood. At the same time the music is beyond exploration, it's like a homecoming from a musician who can create his music, actively.

"I play everything based on what my ear suggests that I play, with no objective editing. And my ear is fed by a pool of accumulated musical experiences stored in my memory, mental memory and muscle memory. My active role is to do the best I can to play on my instrument what my ear is suggesting. I hear my part almost as if it were already composed by someone else".

In the short pieces, Phillips gives himself completely, creating lyrical and rhythmic and physical moments of beauty. Even if only five ideas for the pieces existed beforehand, they all have a kind of structure that Phillips claims comes almost naturally to him, as a legacy from his classical training.

When you compare it with the other 'great' solo bass albums, it does not have the epic exploration of Paul Roger's "Being", or the physicality of a Peter Kowald, or the creative abundance of Joëlle Léandre, or the deep soul of a William Parker. Phillips treats his instrument gently, carefully, thoughtfully, even in the fast moments, which results in music that is restrained in its freedom, or free in its constraints, like Japanes haiku poetry. It catches a thought, purifies it, beautifies it, and brings it to a close. And within this shortness, magic happens.

The album is built in three parts, called "Quest", "Inner Door", and "Outer Window", like a suite delving deep into the artist's journey, searching for the right music, driven by feelings and insights, and sharing this with the rest of the world. Manfred Eicher, the wizard behind ECM turned all the improvisations into their strong and balanced sequence.

It may be his last solo bass album, but it should be in the library of every music lover.

Mark Dresser - Modicana (No Business, 2017) ****½

This album was reviewed by colleague David Menestres in January already, but because I like it so much, it's always good to bring it under attention again.

Dresser shows how brilliant technique and musical ideas can conjure up sonic universes that leave deep impressions. Throughout the album, he changes the atmosphere between the more gentle, maybe even playful pieces that are played with plucked strings, and the heavy, somber gravitas of the bowed tracks, which results in a balanced overall album, yet on the other hand it diminishes some of the coherence.

My preference goes to the bowed pieces. The opening track is dark, hesitant, changing in solidity and fluidity, adding silence when needed, altering the approach repeatedly, like in an evolving story, full of austere beauty and emotional power. "Threaded" creates a wonderful multiphonic narrative full of tension and unresolved yearning, a complex piece which is by itself already worth the purchase of the album. The same intensity is kept in the last three tracks, which come across as a suite. Silence, darkness, and the slow deep sounds are once in a while pierced by high agonizing tones, or countered by mute rumblings. The effect of the bowed pieces when listened to all in one go is amazing, at least to me. The bowed piece bring you musical art at a very high level. Don't miss this album.

Johnny Mbizo Dyani ‎– African Bass Solo Concert - Willisau Jazz Festival 1978 (Sing A Song Fighter, 2018) ****

Even if not entirely solo bass, this album is worth mentioning, because it offers the so far unreleased part of a concert with the great Johnny Mbizo Dyani, the South African bassist who was in exile in Europe, and died far too early at the age of 42.

In 1980, Red Records released his "African Bass", a performance with Clifford Jarvis on drums, and Dyani on bass, and alternating on piano.

This album is like a prequel or live version, performed and recorded at the Willisau concert in Switzerland on September 2, 1978, one year before the studio recording.

Like the studio album, the music is pure African jazz, but performed with the singular vision of Dyani, offering a wonderful mix of lyrical musical poetry, joy and deep spiritual roots in African folk music. The first track is his spoken intro, followed by a sung incantation, a beautiful and too short piano piece.

The solo performance on bass starts only on the long fourth track, called "African Bass". It begins hesitatingly, scraping a gradually rhythmic pattern on one string, and soft plucked murmured bluesy notes, with unexpected free improv inclinations until halfway the piece, it switches into the real rhythmic theme of 'African bass', carrying the whole tune on his own, letting his bass play the rhythm, sing and dance at the same time, changing the simple tune into a variation of alterations and expansions, to be joined by his glorious singing of a traditional African folk song. This is not the introspective music of Phillips, or the dark complexity of Dresser, but the expression of life itself, mournful and joyful at the same time.

Side A of the second LP has an equally long solo bass piece. It starts less extrovert as the first solo, with minute musings, little notes and carefully crafted improvisations, intimate and precise, until - again - it flowers open in a bass vamp as the foundation for Dyani's singing. Impossible to know what he's singing, but it's an absolute pleasure to hear. The last side has two very short pieces, one with drums, and the closing piece offers us another song accompanied by piano.

The album itself is quite unevenly balanced, and you wonder whether all the music could not have fitted into one LP instead of two, but maybe I'm more accustomed to CDs to judge this, and then what?

It's a fascinating album, and a wonderful effort by the label to have found this music in the radio archives and to have released it in the first place. It shows Dyani as he was: a creative and free spirit, conscious of his heritage and open to the world, and daring enough to go beyond the expected, crafting his own music and style in the most authentic way.

Copies are hard to find, but I can only suggest you keep trying.

Ashley John Long - Psi (FMR, 2017) ***½

Now we take a jump to modern times, with this solo album by British bassist Ashley John Long, born in the year that Johnny Dyani passed away. Long has incredible technique, as comfortable in moments that have the sound purity of classical music, and stretching his sounds then beyond the expected and the deemed possible, and luckily not as a demonstrating of showmanship, but with the sole intention of creating new music.

The album contains eleven pieces, mostly miniatures with their own unique and internally cohesive narrative: intimately plucked, darkly bowed, crisp and granular. A few tracks take the time to expand and develop the angle of approach, notably the long "For Peter Reynolds", in which a somber and deeply resonating atmosphere is slowly shifting in intensity and pitch to the extent of even becoming terrifying.

Ashley John Long understands his instrument and music. Even better, he feels both.

Marco Quaresimin - Sondes (Unrevenu, 2017) ***

Marco Quaresimin is a Venetian double bass player who moved to Paris in 2010. On the first track his bass is lying on the floor and is being played by the bow and various objects, with the audience also lying on the floor, experiencing the sound in a very 'grounded' way, feeling the resonance of the minimalist bowing in the space around them and the floor beneath them. Other objects are used and the strings resonate in the same frequency. In this way, the audience is treated to a 'sound massage'. The effect of the sound is mesmerising. The second track is equally innovative, played with two bows, which gives the impression of the use of loops or other electronics, yet the sound is purely acoustic. Its repetitive minimalism is not new by itself, but the effect is strong.

The video below will give an idea of his approach.

Marco Serrato - The Potter (Bandcamp, 2017) ***

Marco Serrato loves solo bass albums, and he's released almost one every year since 2014, as a kind of personal musical divergence from his more rock-oriented career as the bassist/singer of the Spanish doom metal trio "Orthodox". The music here is all bowed, at varying speeds, often exploring various timbres and sound colors. The digital album with only one track lasts not more than twenty minutes. The atmosphere is dark.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Mike Majkowski - Swimming In Light (Entr'acte, 2017) ***½

We've reviewed Australian Mike Majkowski's singular approach to the the bass before, described by Eyal Haruveni as "chilly electro-acoustic drones, all insisting on investigating methodically repetitive patterns, the subtle sculpting of fragile textures with only minute oscillations and mutations of the frequencies, as well as an exploration of the resonant timbral qualities of the acoustic instruments". That approach is further explored on "Swimming In Light", if the word "explored" can be used in such a minimalist context. Despite the title, the image the music portrays is one of dark calm seas with ominous and gloomy undercurrents. The tones may rise at moments to higher pitches, but without changing the overall structure of the piece or even of its mood. The second piece offers more variation, in the sense that the pitch changes more frequently, hinting at melody, and then, for the second part of the track, barely audible sounds shimmer just above silence, with a few slow bow strokes adding a sense of desolation and loneliness. 


Steve N, said...

Hi Stef!

"End to End" is a masterpiece! The work of a poet who goes to the essential. You're right: every music lover should own a copy of it.