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Saturday, May 11, 2019

Catching-up with Paul Dunmall (Day One)

By Colin Green

Such are the flood of releases from British reeds-man Paul Dunmall that it sometimes feels like you can never quite catch-up. 2018 saw him feature on eight albums, all on Trevor Taylor’s FMR label which has done so much to support free jazz and improv over the years. The Rain Sessions (FMR, 2018) was reviewed by Paul Acquaro in December and over the next two days it falls to me to cover the rest, albeit more briefly than they deserve. Anyone wanting a refresher on this considerable musician can take a look at the blog’s coverage during our Dunmall week a few years ago, starting here (click on “newer post” to move through the reviews).

Paul Dunmall, John O'Gallagher, John Edwards, Mark Sanders ‎– Freedom Music (FMR, 2018) ****

Recorded in January 2018 at the Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham – a favourite haunt in my teens – the quartet consists of Dunmall (tenor, right), John O'Gallagher (alto, left), John Edwards, double bass, and Mark Sanders, drums. The presence of the latter two is a virtual guarantee of quality.

Dunmall has a particular way of developing material, relying on movement in and around distinct harmonic centres, more modes than keys, travelling from one area to the next like irregular stepping stones. This is likely something he learnt from his intensive studies of Coltrane, though taken into more highly developed areas. It allows him greater fluidity in his modulations, a more discriminating palette of colours, and the resources to construct a narrative that shifts between discernible expressive temperatures. Methodical but unpredictable, it forms a glue that binds his often lengthy discursions into comprehensible progressions, unpacking and reconfiguring musical ideas in seemingly endless chains of association, a continuation of one of Coltrane’s obsessions, and that of other contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic: the propagation of material from primary particles, the smallest units of significance. Dunmall is also indebted to Coltrane for a sense of heroic determination – music as a spiritual quest striving for transcendence, with the exploration of the interior life of a musical figure operating as a simulacrum of other searches, culminating in peaks of vertiginous grandeur that evoke the Sublime, a place where inner and outer worlds meet.

All this can be heard on ‘Freedom Music One’ and ‘Two’, both of substantial duration. The basic elements are presented at the outset of each of the identifiable dramatic zones through which the music passes in a loose sort of head that functions like a gravitational presence. (I’ve a feeling that some of these phrases, often closely related, are actually derived from Coltrane or so similar they could be.) This produces a sequence of vivid arcs that are also deeply melodic improvisations referable, however obliquely, to those initial seeds and their germination. O'Gallagher is perfectly attuned to Dunmall’s thinking and there’s a visceral excitement as the pair become locked in sinuous counterpoint, ascending and hovering on the currents generated by bustling bass and percussion. They end with epic hollering over thundering drums. The shorter ‘Freedom Music Three’ is a lament of dusky introspection. Here, as elsewhere, Edwards and Sanders are at their inventive best weaving a rich tapestry of sound with verve and sensitivity.

As evidenced by the following two albums, Dunmall is too much of a shape shifter to be regarded simply as a Coltrane acolyte, displaying a multivalence that is part of his strength and originality.

Paul Dunmall, Philip Gibbs, Neil Metcalfe, Ashley John Long ‎– Seascapes (FMR, 2018) ****

These are performances from November 2017 at the Victoria Rooms, Bristol, a frequent recording venue for Dunmall, with tenor and soprano saxophones, Philip Gibbs on electric guitar, Neil Metcalfe, flute, and Ashley John Long, double bass, all familiar collaborators and a combination that gives a chamber music feel to the pieces. Full of incessant activity across a spectrum of registers, always fluctuating, barely still, it’s impossible to avoid marine metaphors or thinking of some of those breath-taking sequences from the BBC’s Blue Planet series depicting the sheer variety of life-forms and complexity of dependence in the aqueous space that lies beneath the ocean’s surface. This is exactly what’s going on musically, a diversity of organisms undergoing startling transformations in a wealth of colour -- an airy flute spinning out notes, bubbling guitar, sprightly, fumbling bass and a saxophone that squeezes into the gaps between. Blink and you might miss something.

Collectively, the ensemble conjures up the multiple movement of glittering shoals – bursts of energy darting hither and thither – undulating ribbons of sound looping and gliding, and odd, interlocked configurations that proceed crabwise. On ‘Colour of the Season’ there’s an unusual buzzing tone to Dunmall’s soprano, sounding like an Indian Shehnai (an affect achieved through his embouchure) playing Eastern scales over the watery strains of Gibbs’ guitar; like surface of the sea, present yet undefined.

Paul Dunmall, Alan Niblock, Mark Sanders ‎– Dark Energy (FMR, 2018) ****

A session from the Blast Furnace studio in Derry, Northern Ireland in April 2013 finds Dunmall (on tenor) and Sanders teamed with Irish double bassist, Alan Niblock. The music is largely defined by their relationship with Niblock whose dexterous, fulsome bass and adroit bowing form the point around which saxophone and drums circulate Faint echoes and rhymes drift through the trio, and we hear yet another side to Dunmall, more restrained and circumspect with accelerations and hard-edged runs tempered by start-stop reflections, honking asides and suggestive pianissimo phrases left hanging in the air. On ‘Light Maters’, his expansive saxophone drops back down, withdrawing into abbreviations, squeals and burrs while Sanders skims and skitters across his kit like an animating breeze. With susurrus brushes and soft trills, ‘Life Matters’ is shadows and whispers, barely there.

Below is the trio’s terrific set from the Playhouse in Derry the following month, a denser and more loquacious affair, and an opportunity to see Sanders give a masterclass in drumming.


yp said...

great read! thanks! feel like captain of the musicology yacht.