Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Torben Snekkestad, Agusti Fernandez, Barry Guy - The Swiftest Traveler (Trost, 2020) ****

By Taylor McDowell

“I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he who goes afoot,” writes Henry David Thoreau in his masterwork, “Walden.” To spend the whole day working to earn a wage, just to buy train fare to visit the countryside would be a frivolous endeavor - especially when one could simply visit the countryside on foot, no fare required. The idea that “modern improvements” actually enhance the quality of living is something Thoreau argued against in his musings of economy, progress, and the human spirit. The swiftest traveler eschews their reliance on the extraneous baggage in favor of self-reliance and simplicity.

I don’t know if the title of this record is a reference to Thoreau’s traveler, but I think the principles do apply to the music therein. The Swiftest Traveler is the second release by this international trio - featuring reedist Torben Snekkestad, pianist Agusti Fernandez, and bassist Barry Guy, following their debut release, Louisiana Variations , in 2017. They achieve a remarkable sense of freedom here because they seem untethered by tradition and travel without the baggage of preconception. The simplicity is not in the music itself, nor the techniques involved. Rather, it’s their unadulterated approach to collective improvisation where the elements of playing are given equal weight. Different ideas are often positioned opposite to each other to create a narrative through contrasts. Melody is pitted against sheer sound; repetitive phrases are a fixture contrasting moments of pinball indirection; volume dynamics fluctuate from complete silence to overwhelming dins; musical agreements that result in an insurgency.

The music, because of it’s mercurial nature, is difficult to pin down and describe with generalizations. And rightfully so. Guy and Fernandez tend to have slippery styles where erraticism is part of their musical languages. Guy moves freely between pizzicato and arco, often several times throughout a single track. Strings wheez, pop and clatter much of the time, but on the ripe occasion, he’ll play a thick droning note on arco that has a gravitational pull on the other two musicians. Fernandez is the type of pianist who can be found tinkering inside the piano as often as he is sitting behind the keys. On The Swiftest Traveler, he spends more time doing the latter, and often with devastating effects. His fleet-fingered runs weave between and collide with Guy and Snekkestad during periods of complete disarray. He has quite a commanding presence when his riotous lines coagulate into dense tremolos and volume swells. Compared to the other two, Snekkestad’s approach may seem a bit more traditional here. However, his playing on various reeds and trumpet often yields some of the deepest, most anguished emotional material on the record. Snekkestad’s use of lyricism is a gorgeous counterbalance to the textured assaults of his partners.

The effect of their combined idiosyncracies results in a beautiful series of improvisations. There
always seems to be forward momentum, even in the more hectic moments on the record. At times their individual voices seem to be pushing and pulling in completely different directions. The feeling of tension from this multidirectional approach is temporarily abated when they suddenly shift into a completely new conversation. Their quick reflexes surely keep things interesting, though admittedly it’s easy to get blissfully lost along the way. On tracks like “Sway” and “Slip, Slide & Rattle,” they grapple with a multitude of ideas at the speed of thought until reaching moving climaxes where they converge on a single mood. “InSitu” is a remarkably cohesive dialogue between Fernandez and Snekkestad that begs for a duo recording between these two. The album closes with the misleadingly titled “Interlude.” It starts with a lively and turbulent improvisation before shifting into a lovely composed coda - a porcelain bookend to close an otherwise visceral record.

The Swiftest Traveler is an album that becomes more generous with each listen. It’s easy to miss the little gems embedded throughout because there are many and they are all too fleeting. Just when you catch a nugget of their clever interplay, they’ve already moved onto the next idea. There’s also a certain primal feeling throughout - that we are listening to free music in its most natural and uncompromised form. This is a fleet-footed trio that I hope to hear more from. Highly recommended.
The Swiftest Traveler is available on vinyl, as a CD or digital download.

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