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Saturday, November 14, 2020

Various ‎– Not Two...But Twenty (Not Two, 2020) *****

 By Colin Green

Not Two Records was founded by Marek Winiarski in 1998 and has grown to become one of the leading labels for freely improvised music, having released over 270 albums to date, a genuine feat of endurance in such a fragile market. To celebrate its twentieth anniversary, Not Two held a festival at venues in the village of Wleń, south-west Poland over three days in September 2018 with the participation of thirteen musicians from nine countries in four sets each evening, now available on five CDs programmed to follow a slightly different sequence from the festival’s order of appearance, thereby producing its own continuities and contrasts. The discs come in a handsome, hinged wooden box, a sturdier construction than some other Not Two sets such as the cardboard package that housed the 10-CD Vandermark Resonance collection. There’s also a booklet that provides a brief introduction to the label and commentary on the festival’s sights and sounds from John Sharpe of All About Jazz.

The concerts feature an all-star cast, each of whom has appeared on previous Not Two releases, performing in ad hoc rotating formations where it seems everybody gets the opportunity to play with everyone else. Such ‘workshop’ ensembles go back to early European free jazz festivals and tours, and in many ways it’s an arrangement that reflects the jigsaw of possibilities inherent in the improvisor’s creed. The development of free music has been the story of paths that criss-cross, suggesting that its history is not so much continuous as branched, more a network of shared concerns than consistent tendencies and trajectories bounded by some dominant narrative. And as heard across these performances, divergence and differences count for as much as a shared vocabulary, to the extent that there are times when it makes sense to pause between each combination in preparation for the mental adjustments required. As with other kinds of music there are multiple ways of going about matters, giving rise to complex relations that demand adaptive listening.

Most of the sets last between about twenty minutes and half-an-hour which might have sharpened the senses and account for the high standard of performance, a collective rising to the occasion, along with the liberty to think liaisons anew afforded by such flexible settings, surely an inspiration for all the musicians, whose playing is marked by a wonderful freshness and intelligence. Free improvisation is an act of faith in happenstance, things that come in waft rather than choice, a celebration of happy accidents and intuitive leaps. Yet it is also a living art form embedded in humanistic values, so that although spontaneity lies at its heart it has a strictness of purpose which reaches beyond the short-lived and fugitive. There’s a respect for unforeseen occurrences but also the challenge of finding points of contact and different ways of maintaining coherence within a sometimes heterogenous environment, as well as countering unity through displacement and disjunction, using subtleties of response to create something of real substance. It is music sensitive to its own peculiar habitation to be played with antennae out. Likewise, it has a malleable structure which may be sequential, cyclic, labyrinthine, by dialogue, through reverie and respite, evolution or osmosis. Most of all however, in its attempts to grasp and perpetuate the transient improvisation seems to mirror the passage of time as a qualitative rather than a measured experience, the product of memory and anticipation acting together.

There’s a lot to digest and of remarkable, at times dizzying, scope. I’ll take it one configuration at a time but first, the dramatis personae:

Acoustic Bass Guitar – Rafał Mazur

Baroque Violin – Maya Homburger

Double Bass – Barry Guy, Joëlle Léandre

Drums, Percussion – Paal Nilssen-Love, Zlatko Kaučič

Piano, Digital Piano – Agustí Fernandez

Saxophones – Mats Gustafsson

Saxophones, Reeds – Ken Vandermark, Mikołaj Trzaska, Peter Brötzmann

Trombone – Steve Swell

Tuba – Per-Åke Holmlander

Barry Guy, Maya Homburger

This duo produces a distinctive synthesis of old and new, moving from the medieval to modern in a sequence that has opened their recitals for some years. We begin with the plainchant hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus (Come Creator Spirit), an invocation for the music to follow with Homburger playing while she walks from the back of the room to the stage area, uniting audience and performers, which leads directly into ‘The Annunciation’ from the first of Heinrich Biber’s Mystery Sonatas, its quickening ascents and quicksilver contrasts a herald of things to come, accompanied by Guy’s imaginative extemporisation on the continuo parts. György Kurtág’s Hommage à J.S.B., one of his many tributes to fellow composers, is rendered as a spiralling violin line over a glaze of arco. Next is Guy’s Tales of Enchantment for Violin and Bass, a suite that was later worked up and into Amphi (Intakt, 2014) and Time Passing.... (Maya, 2015) for larger ensembles. A brisker performance than the premiere recording on Tales of Enchantment (Intakt, 2012) the seven pieces are not individually banded though there are brief pauses between each.

Guy has done much to merge composition and improvisation, employing aspects of both in a simpatico relationship, such as textures and tones that resist standard notation operating within a premediated but ductile architectural span. As so often with his music there’s no audible distinction between composed and improvised elements, sounding impromptu yet organised. The Tales are evocative studies, each of a different character encompassing a wide range of registers and dynamics, attentive to nuanced gradations in sonority, and rich in string colour. There are slivers of elegiac melody on violin and plucked bass, a resonant fusion of combined voices, metallic rattles from treated bass, whispering trills, and swollen, overlapping chords. The work ends with the energetic ‘Hero’, and a series of virtuoso flurries and synchronised double-stops.

Peter Brötzmann, Barry Guy, Zlatko Kaučič

The exordium is what one would expect, two titanic forces in mutual eruption: Brötzmann’s wailing saxophone and Guy’s molten encrustations. After a time, the temperature cools and Brötzmann draws on his repository of emblematic tunes, the first time on subdued tárogató, the last at feverish full-throttle on tenor propelled by pounding bass and percussion, accruing in force until the trio crashes at high speed, abruptly terminated by a local power cut that plunged the venue into darkness; save for Brötzmann who keeps his wits and brings matters to a quick but graceful close.

Joëlle Léandre, Steve Swell, Agustí Fernández

As often the case, with this combo rather than an aggregated texture we hear the instruments very much as independent striations, separated not blended, and therefore retaining their individual character and motion – even solos feel like exposed layers – giving the listener the opportunity to take a global view or plot alternate routes. Swell is by turns lightweight and fruity, tripping along in solid through-lines. Fernández deploys an array of pianistic textures which can be crisply linear or vaporously vague, darting across the keyboard, tinkling in the upper registers and hammering out dances in the lowest. Léandre is more grounded, wiry and tremulous, supplying a ceaseless warp and weft. But these are not self-sustaining zones of activity. There’s overlapping slippage as figures and phrases zigzag across the trio, brief alliances are formed and spent, and significant changes in pace are respected by all.

Mats Gustafsson, Mikołaj Trzaska, Per-Âke Holmlander, Rafał Mazur

In contrast this is a quite different ensemble with soundscapes dominated not by individuals but indeterminate relations and amorphous textures that coalesce and seep. It sounds as if things just happened that way as the set begins with a punchy dialogue between the saxophones. This dwindles to sotto voce key clatter and a reduced field of discourse, inducing slithering micro-level movement from the whole ensemble. Led by the saxophones the music takes on muscle as it adopts a new profile before sinking back to superimposed membranes and Mazur’s controlled layers of feedback. After it’s over someone, possibly Gustafsson, says, “I’ve never played like that.”

Peter Brötzmann, Mikołaj Trzaska, Per-Âke Holmlander, Agustí Fernández

According to the track sequencing at least, it’s Gustafsson and Mazur off, Brötzmann and Fernández on, a quartet still playing with two saxophones up front but with a number of tactical changes as each takes the option to move forward or drop back into a supporting role. Fernández’ mazy runs and diagonal movement provide the principle linking play leaving room for interchange within the group – Brötzmann’s crunchy slabs of sound paired with pulsating tuba, Trzaska’s elasticated saxophone set against dexterous convolutions on the piano. Led by Brötzmann’s tenor the performance is elevated to a stirring group communion, and after discussion time is added on for a brief encore featuring some silky B♭ clarinet and distinctly grainy bass clarinet.

Mats Gustafsson, Rafal Mazur, Paal Nilssen-Love

Here we find Gustafsson in familiar territory. There’s an emotional rawness to his playing; like Francis Bacon’s painting of flesh his saxophone is charged with a viscous energy, sticking directly to the nervous system as it were, in a procession of blistering encounters with actuality. Although the coagulations and smears may sound unmediated, as with Bacon’s brushwork it’s a fluency acquired through skill and judgment, as much about control as impulse. In this performance these features are enhanced by Mazur’s nimbly plucked bass lines, like an electric current coursing through the music, and framed by Nilssen-Love’s precisely gauged waves of percussion. It’s not all searing intensity, however. Plosive squawks and clots surrender to weeping laments – in recent years Gustafsson has shone as a tunesmith - and the set reaches its apotheosis with a tender melody over repeated notes on bass. For the encore we’re back to open-throated, throbbing honks, the full surge of utterance.

Joëlle Léandre, Barry Guy
, Zlatko Kaučič, Steve Swell, Ken Vandermark

Léandre is the common denominator across the third disc. Considered in the round, her playing has a sense of oratory about it, the locutions of recitation and song that at times give rise to her own exuberant vocalisations, what she’s described as adding an extra string to the bass. Her gritty bowing and wandering lines are not specifically French in accent (although Proust’s long, looping sentences spring to mind) but are definitely conversational in diction and tone. The prevalence of the bow allows her to shape long phrases and introduce asides and inflections that can be loquacious, witty, and challenging, and which impart a periodicity spanning everything from speaking in tongues to the cadences of high rhetoric.

This second set of the second day consists of various combinations of the above performers in a sequence that should probably be heard uninterrupted for its full effect. The dispositions expand in a way that reveal the fluctuations that can take place through augmentation with each grouping having a slightly different convergence, giving the set’s progression an air of fascinating unpredictability. Léandre (left) and Guy (centre) set things in motion. Their first duo together took place the previous year and during these improvisations the pair broaden their compass. They have distinct sensibilities, but the overwhelming impression in the opening duo is of two musicians absolutely attuned, drawn into the same zesty universe where energy is trapped and released. Each seems to refract the intricate composition and shapes of the other, moving from tangled webs to moments of pin-point focus, including a softly rising chant and some beautiful pizzicato from Guy.

They are then joined by Kaučič whose dusty particles of sound (including metal cups and bubble wrap) establish a more scattered terrain. Léandre and Guy are now separate voices, still listening but with something different to say. Time slows during an extended passage of reflective bowing disappearing into silence. (You can hear the audience reacting to some on-stage theatrics at this point, described by Sharpe in his liner notes.) The trio reconstructs itself with increasing power, a bristling pattern continued, after a pause, with the addition of Swell who then drops down into a lyrical flow. Gradually he’s pushed into a more vivid display by heavily plucked echoes and thick bowing from the basses, overlaid with the glitter of struck metal and wood. Léandre’s glissandi introduce another change in direction, a more fractured assemblage as each of the quartet bounce rapidly off one another. This process of equivocation and renewal continues with the trombone’s increasingly distended phrases dominant until it too dissolves into murmurs.

With the introduction of Vandermark the dynamic shifts again, as gristly spurts on saxophone and Swell’s perky trombone fasten the quintet together, bringing the first piece to a rumbustious close. Everything’s reversed for their second improvisation, never rising above pianissimo as suggestive fragments and delicate traces of melody float about one another, half-formed.

Joëlle Léandre, Mikołaj Trzaska

The last two tracks on disc three are from the following day and are a contraction to solo and duo. Léandre starts in monologue, which is not that common: mumbling, glossolalic growls alternating with exclamations, released to take flight, interrupted by arpeggios, and dissipating into trembling chords and a folksy, left-hand pizzicato. When Trzaska joins he seems to pick up on her chattering chronicle using undulating clusters of notes which mutate into new combinations, breaking out into short melodies and percussive exchanges. Having reached an accord, they end with both in full song and fade to hushed whispers.

Maya Homburger

The first set of the final evening begins again with the summons of Veni Creator Spiritus, from which Homburger moves on to play the opening ‘Grave’ and ‘Adagio’ from Bach’s second and first sonatas for violin, respectively. The music of Bach can act as a palate cleanser. As many musicians (and audiences) will confirm, it has a purity of spirit that refreshes the soul and provides an ideal means of musical preparation, whether for listening, practice or performance and irrespective of genre. Bach’s works, still the peak of the solo violin repertoire, have an emotional depth and contrapuntal intensity that never fail to inspire, and here these slow movements are given readings whose sensitive phrasing and transparency radiate an inner calm.

Between the two Bach pieces Homburger performs Aglais by Barry Guy, the middle composition of a trilogy named after butterflies that were written to be interspersed on each of her three CD recordings of the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas (Maya, 2008). Fully notated, it’s an absorbingly meditative work that started life as a graphic score and exploits the sonorities and articulations particular to the baroque violin and bow, different in timbre and projection from their modern counterparts most notably in the use of gut rather than steel strings, lending the instrument a softer, grainier sound. The piece is contemporary in its language yet at the same time makes use of recurring blocks of material and broken chords in a manner that evokes baroque techniques. Unfortunately, Homburger’s set is marred by some offstage barking (Baching?); appropriately enough this music is rousing for dogs too.

Peter Brötzmann, Paal Nilssen-Love

From Bach to Brötzmann, which was not the order of performance, might seem quite a jump but it is a thought-provoking juxtaposition. Over the years duos with drums have been some of Brötzmann’s most telling performances, perhaps because the format embodies a fundamental relationship between melody and rhythm which in its own way, like Bach, is anchored in something eternal. There’s an almost mythic grandeur to Brötzmann’s music, though over the last decade or so epic sweeps have gradually been replaced by more condensed dramas, polarities and reversals portrayed with the dark clarity of classical tragedy. This time there are three scenes in which the old stories are told once again, where the gravity of what has passed carries a particular charge, opening with his familiar clarion call and fiery proclamations that resound with increasing urgency. Switching to the tárogató’s reverberant, double-reed buzz, the heroic blasts are now delivered as soft pleas and fraught remonstrations, eventually emerging into the redemptive light of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Sumphin’ backed by Nilssen-Love’s ritual beat. After years of collaboration he perfectly understands the arc of Brötzmann’s discursions and the foil required: how to build momentum or heighten the emotional pitch, when to press, when to hold back. The final tableau opens with a mournful soliloquy on clarinet. After delaying his entry Nilssen-Love’s fidgety brushes become more emphatic as the mood splinters until only his shaken percussion is left, and we end with Brötzmann’s ‘Churchsong’ chiselled out on tenor – an absolution of sorts.

Mats Gustafsson, Ken Vandermark, Steve Swell, Per-Âke Holmlander

The performance starts with just Gustafsson and Vandermark, also familiar to one another from multiple settings, but as throughout the festival each encounter provides fresh impetus. On saxophone and clarinet respectively, this is an exercise in telepathy as they swerve from one set of ideas to the next – meshed, abbreviated, knockabout, leisurely – establishing a tone of capricious invention for the remainder of the set. With the addition of Swell and Holmlander (Vandermark and Gustafsson now both on saxophones) the refulgent ensemble of reeds and brass lights up like flares in an intoxicating display of knife-edge polyphony. The confabulation gives way to a duo between Swell and Gustafsson, in turn a prelude to an unexpected change of tack, a serene chorale laid down by trombone and bass saxophone. As it builds in sombre resonance, underpinned by the animated tread of Holmlander’s tuba, Vandermark’s compressed, increasingly shrill tenor rises and lets out a succession of heartrending cries with truly poignant finality.

Agustí Fernández, Zlatko Kaučič, Barry Guy, Rafał Mazur

Due to the venue’s remote location, the last official set of the festival finds Fernández using a Yamaha digital piano. Mazur and Guy are placed left and right of centre but there’s little prospect of confusing their guitar and upright basses as the construction of each, their physical ambit and angle of engagement, produce markedly different sounds. Played together they create a dense amalgam of soft and hard edges, a tactile region that fits comfortably between the piano’s sharp lucidity and Kaučič’s light, fluttering percussion – right across this collection the recording quality allows us to savour a certain sonic beauty in the various permutations.

Apart from an aphoristic central episode that ascends to a thinner altitude, the bulk of the performance takes place in a hothouse of accelerated growth dominated by a clump of closely spaced, rapidly repeated notes that first surface early on the piano. A seemingly inconsequential idea, this tiny seed sprouts offshoots and hybrids. The harmonic tension between the notes and the gesture itself are a significant generative force, acting as a catalyst for some knotty dialogue between Guy and Mazur and harnessed by Fernández in his blurred crescendos.

Not Two But Twenty Orchestra

Finally, there’s a sort of bonus track. Festivals such as this often end with members of the cast gathered in a farewell celebration, sometimes a collective summation, occasionally a case of “Too many cooks…”. It helps to have a format to organise such a gathering, and here it was supplied by Conduction cards. Unaware of this unlisted performance, Marek Winiarski was persuaded onstage to select and hold up the cards, containing instructions, pictures and symbols, so that in a sense it is his piece too. The exercise is carried out with good humour and after a false start the Orchestra whips through varying combinations, large and small, handling the card changes with aplomb. A fitting conclusion to the festival and tribute to its curator.

One of the highlights, the outstanding set from Mats Gustafsson, Rafał Mazur and Paal Nilssen-Love:


joe.po said...

Thanks Colin for the kind words of this extraordinary wooden box, filled with a lot of good sessions by todays performers. I own one and I like it a lot and I only regret not having been present in person while this birthday party ... as almost always, a good job by NotTwo.

Captain Hate said...

Excellent review which will enhance my enjoyment of this set more than the liners in the booklet, which were informative of things visually unavailable to the listener but otherwise oddly unfulfilling. Kudos to Fernandez making the best of not being able to manipulate the piano innards as he usually does in these types of gatherings and sounding fluidly unimpeded. The photo on the disc sleeves of the forest railroad siding to Wień add to the sense of the isolated specialness of the gathering. And the aesthetic pleasure of the smell of fresh wood on unwrapping the box adds to the experience.