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Monday, April 20, 2020

Marcel·lí Bayer & Josep-María Balanyà - Escletxa (Discordian, 2019) ****

By Taylor McDowell

I have to admit, I bought this record on a whim having no clue who the artists were. Perhaps it was because I was impressed by the last piano/baritone saxophone duo recording I heard (Craig Taborn and Mats Gustafsson in this case, but I won’t entertain any comparisons). It could be, in part, because Discordian Records already holds my confidence as a purveyor of adventurous sounds, and has enlightened me to the creative music scene in Barcelona. Whatever the case, I went into this record cold-turkey and was rewarded with a great listen.

Escletxa is a meeting of two Catalan improvisers, born of different generations. The elder Josep-Maria Balanyà (piano) and Marcel·lí Bayer (baritone saxophone) met in their home city and have performed together before this live recording from July 2019. From the very first listen, it was apparent to me that Balanyà and Bayer have developed an intuitive musical language indicative of their shared history. Also notably is how they approach collective improvisation. They aren’t the combative type trying to foil each other’s next move with confrontational gestures and counter-attacks. Rather, the visual reference of birds moving together in flight comes to mind; like a murmuration of starlings, piano and saxophone move in synchrony and often with large sweeping gestures of tone, direction, and emotion. Even as a hawk might scatter the flock of starlings, causing moments of disarray, the group inevitably comes together and reforms its coherence.

And that is exactly how the first piece, “Abisme,” plays out. The opening minutes are trancelike. Bayer and Balanyà maintain a pedal whilst Balanyà’s right-hand toys with subtle melodies. This lucid interaction grows organically, slowly heaping tension and density until, finally, the flock fragments and the starlings dart in different directions. The tonal center is muddled, lost in the developing fray as both participants plunge headfirst into the maelstrom. Balanyà, although known for his experiments on the piano as a multifaceted sound-machine, plays mostly in the traditional sense here (that is, on the keys rather than from the piano’s innards). He seems to carry much of the group’s momentum with dense chromatic runs, heavy-handed clusters, and engulfing tremolos. Bayer, on the other hand, approaches the baritone with a touch of delicacy and measured intensity; for this reason, the moments when he really cuts loose carry heft.

While it does seem like Bayer defers to Balanyà’s direction throughout much of Escletxa, I don’t see this as problematic; the pianist deftly scales ideas or moods with such precision to create nearly formed movements within the overall improvisation. Bayer’s role is complementary to Balanyà, and he succeeds in amplifying ideas and sentiments with finesse. Even still, Balanyà leaves plenty of space for his partner and drops out entirely on more than one occasion. Bayer’s solo sections convey a starkly different sense of fragility, and I find myself holding my breath afraid I might shatter the moment. The second half of “Abisme” follows a similar trajectory as the first. They establish a sense of pulse (generally stated by piano) and subject it to fluctuations in density, [a]tonality, volume until reaching a gratifying climax.

The second track, “Processó,” is a narrative in much the same language and feels like an extension of “Abisme.” We get to hear more extended techniques from Balanyà and his use of preparations, which he uses as a third distinct voice in the conference between saxophone and pianos, prepared and unprepared. Again, a pulse is established in the form of a pedal point, around which the rest of the music revolves and evolves - gradually gaining mass and momentum until it cannot grow anymore. It’s a remarkable display improvisational coherency by two artists now firmly situated on my radar.
Highly recommended.


Colin Green said...

Nice review, Taylor.