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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Going Deep, Down with the Bass Players

Three solo albums of double bass players: American, Damon Smith; Danish, Nild Bo Daviden; and Greek, George Kokkinakis. All have distinct vision about their aesthetics, the importance of the art of the moment, its relations to other arts and the role of the artist in our times.

Damon Smith - Winter Solos for Robert Ryman (Balance Point Acoustics, 2019) ****

It was a snowy day when Smith was on his way to a concert at Cafe Fixe in Brookline, Massachusetts, and was thinking about minimalist, conceptual painter Robert Ryman, who has just passed away (February 8, 2019). Ryman intended to become a jazz saxophonist and even took lessons with Lennie Tristano before dedicating himself to painting. Smith read before the concert a catalogue on Ryman, aptly titled Variations + Improvisations, where Ryman talks about his music: "I wanted to compose: to compose with my instrument, to find all the things you can do with the instrument. In that respect it's related to painting."

Smith decided it was about time to find out all the things he can do with the double bass, “something definitive, an overview of my work as it stands.” Strangely enough, despite being an avid collection of most available solo bass recordings and having recorded duets with innovative, masters of the double bass as Bertram Turetzky and Peter Kowald plus a quartet with Joëlle Léandre, Smith had felt no urge to record a solo album. This solo recording - released on a cassette and lasting only 29 minutes long - his his debut solo project, “a good place to start” as he calls it.

Smith begins the set with powerful demonstration of his extended bowing techniques “Surface Veil”, offering nuanced layers of resonating tones and overtones. The following “Reference” changes the atmosphere completely to a contemplative exploration of the dark and deep tones of the bass. Smith lets these tones float in their own pace and weaves these effective voices into a suggestive, dramatic story. “Cord” emphasizes the richness of his vocabulary by just allowing the bass strings and its wooden body of the bass be and wander wherever they desire while flirting with impossible percussive architectures, nonsensical melodies but with painful memories. The last “Attendant” is the most emotional piece here, a surprisingly melodic love poem to the double bass, all double basses in all their shapes, sizes and characters, and especially for all solo double bass albums.

Nils Bo Davidsen - Hverdagsforvandling (Ilk Music, 2019) ****

Hverdagsforvandling (roughly translated from Danish as everyday transformation) is already the fourth solo album from Nils Bo Davidsen, one of the most experienced bass players of the Danish scene. However, unlike his previous solo double bass albums, this one focuses on the cello. But just like Smith, Davidsen aims at transforming the solo sonic experience into an expansive, multi-layered experience that corresponds with moving images, as suggested by the cover art of Marek Lubner.

Hverdagsforvandling is a collection of compositions and soundscapes that are based on improvised, random ideas that were recorded every day since 2015, later developed in a manner that Davidsen insists he could never composed “by sitting down with my pen and paper”. He structured out of these random, raw ideas solo fantasies, collages and elaborate, multi-layered soundscapes.

His tone of the cello - a lone cello or collage of few cellos - is quite close to the range of the double bass, very deep, dark and highly resonant. His layered soundscapes (sometimes with the addition of a piano) like “Yderdøre”, “Mørkhøj”, where four celli sounds as talking-singing to each other, the choir of 83 celli of “Bindevæv” or the more simple, the touching the hymn-like “I Solen Ved Kirken”sound as vivid and nuanced cinematic stories. Solo cello pieces like “I Forbifarten”, “Solæg” or “I Underfladen” radiate fragile, emotional messages.

Davidsen suggests that such repetitive, daily routines can be transformed our times “into a three-dimensional, colourful experience.” Sound advice.

George Kokkinaris - 8 improvised stories for solo double bass (s/r, 2019) ***1/2

Athens-based Kokkinakis studied the classical methods of playing the double bass but aims at exploring the instrument’s sonic range and unique qualities together with elements of speech, acting and movements, This is his debut solo album, spontaneously improvised in a three hours session from December 2017 that yielded 25 pieces. Later, eight of which were chosen, all with no overdubs, no amplification and no preparations.

Kokkinaris frames his aesthetics in political terms. His liner notes emphasizes the importance of risk-taking, especially in the current era that numbs all signs of individuality and creativity into superficial, collective thinking, often triggered by fear-mongering politics. These times require the emotional intelligence of artists that are gifted with direct contact with our world. Free improvisation is one of the best methods to foster such direct and creative relationship with our world, charging it with much needed, healthy doses of invigorating freedom.

Kokkinaris sees his improvisations as means of connecting with himself and others. Each of the eight pieces offers an insight into his own language, syntax and vocabulary of the bull fiddle and its countless stories. “Postponed Friendship” investigates the dark, highly resonating timbres of the bass with careful bow work. “Radio Reed Contact” sketches nervous, provocative noises with extended bowing techniques. The following “Nekiya” methodically structures rhythmic patterns from sparse sounds. The poetic “Fish Eating The Anchor” plays with delicate ripples of overtones while “Vain Quest Loop” suggests an enigmatic, cinematic narrative, spiced with exotic percussive sounds and tortured bowing. “Flies with Cinnamon” combines stream of consciousness chants, transformed into tense, repetitive acts of bowing. “Amber Formations” demonstrates the orchestral qualities of the bass, filling the room with its powerful, dramatic presence and deep voices. The last “Body & Mouth Pleasures” is the most playful and rhythmic piece here, summarizing all the pleasures the Kokkinaris produces from his beloved instrument.