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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Improdimensional Business

Today, reviews of three albums released on the NoBusiness label – solo, duo, and a quartet – taken from the Improdimensions concert series, established in 2018 and held at MAMA studios, Vilnius, Lithuania. Although recorded in a studio all the performances took place before an audience (remember those?) providing the best of both worlds. Post-Covid the series has continued with online sessions, details of which can be found on the Improdimensions Facebook page.

Barry Guy – Irvin’s Comet (NoBusiness, 2020) ****

By Martin Schray

Barry Guy decided to name his latest solo album after Comet (1998), a screenprint by Albert Irvin (1922—2015) part of which appears on the cover. The British double bassist has previously used works by his fellow countryman as the album art for releases on his Maya label and the solo, 10” EP, Five Fizzles for Samuel Beckett (NoBusiness, 2014). Irvin was a British artist who created an extensive body of abstract paintings, watercolours, and prints. His mature work has its own very particular sense of dimension and depth, achieved through gestural mark-making and luminous hues set against one another in chromatic vibration. He often worked on a grand scale, but also created smaller, more intimate works which function like a microcosm of his large-format paintings. Irvin “epitomised the idea of art as the expression of the life force within the space of the image,” The Guardian wrote in its obituary. His motifs were abstracted from the urban environment about him and as a result archetypal structures came to the fore. In the early 1970s he turned to acrylic instead of oil paint, which led to denser, more vivid layering and the pulsating grids of colour and calligraphic shapes that spread across his canvases, likened by Irvin himself to music.

Barry Guy’s artistic approach has aspects in common with Irvin’s. Dynamic structures and intense sound colour are at the centre of his solo output; his use of the double bass’s physical potential includes several extended methods like rattling bows, sticks, and brushes. As expected, in this performance from 2019 there are elements which strongly characterise his music: notes that buzz around like flies on cocaine (the beginning of “Comet”); nervous trills accompanied by long overtones (“Oscillating”), that seem to add another dimension to the piece; Phrygian shifts in combination with harmonics reminiscent of flamenco music (“Closed Space”); and beautiful glissandi, which he counteracts with short, dancing notes and slapped chords (“Ding Dang A Dingy Dang”).

So far, nothing new. Convincing improvised solo sets need to have an idea of where the music is to go however, and of course Guy has one. His unique sense of form, sublime tone, and harmonic imagination take us on a gradually unfolding trip. The music seems to be in search of something as it turns in one direction, then another, and finally leads us to a goal – in this case, “Old Earth Home”, a piece that dances around a joyful rhythmic riff. Rarely before has Guy sounded so light-hearted, so easy. The piece has the appeal of traditional British folk music, as if the sun’s come out at the end of a cloudy day. After that the music flows into a kind of coda (“Barehead”) which concludes the set.

43 years after Statements V-XI for Double Bass & Violone (Incus, 1977), Barry Guy continues to push the solo double bass genre into fresh, exciting territories. Irvin’s Comet is highly recommended.

Agustí Fernández & Liudas Mockūnas ‎– Improdimensions (NoBusiness, 2020) ****

By Stephen Griffith

Agustí Fernández has been a staple feature of recent European small group improv recordings, displaying his fine-tuned ability to listen and respond to his playmates together with a staggering proficiency both inside the piano and at the keyboard. This album features continuous performances divided into three pieces from the 2018 & 2019 concert series by the Catalan pianist and Lithuanian reed player Liudas Mockūnas.

“Improdimension I” is the more recent event and begins with Mockūnas on soprano saxophone, as he and Fernández engage in an animated conversation, going back and forth with much chattering and many tempo changes as each participant allows the other to state his case before responding. Mockūnas switches rapidly from harsh raspy attacks to sweetly melodic scamperings, while the pianist’s internal machinations are constrained to jangly, damped stings and sliding what always sounds like a billiard ball across the higher registers. On the second track a harsh soprano attack is followed by muted staccato notes on the piano, in turn matched by the horn’s metallic dots. Fernández’ pianistic legerdemain produces rapidfire damped notes with percussive pounding. Wood blocks are dragged over the strings as the soprano takes off on a circular breathing flight followed by a darting melodic excursion on the keys. For “Part III” Mockūnas switches to tenor saxophone, initially exchanging spiralling lines with Fernández before the piano starts a persistent rhythm in the lower register, at the same time maintaining the higher lines. The sax reacts to this by venturing gradually lower on the instrument until reaching some of the deepest tones I've heard from a tenor, as if it has a bass sax attachment, bringing the set to a pleasantly jarring conclusion.

“Improdimension II”, from 2018, features Mockūnas on contrabass clarinet, a mighty instrument which has a reverberant range extending well below that of the bass clarinet and provides a nice tonal segue from the tenor blasts. It opens with Fernández playing sparse notes at the top and bottom ends of the keyboard, gradually modifying the strings to get resonant lows and icy highs before Liudas enters with a croaky underpinning on his earth-bound clarinet. Fernández then plays a quick, damped pattern as Mockūnas shifts to the higher range of the instrument, like the cries of a humpback whale, followed by slap-tongued notes that resemble boxes crashing on a ship deck, to complete the nautical imagery. The second cut is Fernández alone, with a skittering bumblebee flight building into a droning wall of sound that slowly crumbles to nothingness through the intervention of rapid fingerwork over his keyboard. The final track has elephantine sounds descending ever deeper, joined by Fernández’ modified strings and drones, until the instruments fade in and out as the listener tries to construe which is playing what. Percussive punches and voices bring things to a conclusion.

These are two wonderful performances that don't outstay their welcome. Agustí Fernández has been a personal favourite for a long time but Liudas Mockūnas was new to me and has already received further investigation. Hopefully, further joint explorations are in store.

Nate Wooley, Liudas Mockūnas, Barry Guy, Arkadijus Gotesmanas – NOX (NoBusiness, 2020) ****

 

By Colin Green

This is a quartet bristling with ideas, comprising Nate Wooley (trumpet), Liudas Mockūnas (contrabass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones), Barry Guy (double bass), and Arkadijus Gotesmanas (drums and percussion). Both Wooley and Guy were artists in residence for the 2019 Improdimensions and as far as I can tell this is their first recording together. There are three improvisations: “DIES” (day), “NOX” (night), and “LUX” (light).

In the same way that with Irvin’s art the action of his wrist is ever present, so here there’s a sense of physical engagement being the progenitor of sound and shape through the nuances of pressure, speed, and articulation; and like Irvin, imbued with a certain opulence – welters of plucked notes, brass sunbursts, the fluid consistency of wriggling reeds, and bright, crystallised percussion. And in both cases the process of their making is analogous to going on a journey. “MULTA DIES” presents mobile and static pockets of activity, each distinct but drawn into the ambit of the other, an intricate tracery carved out by bass and drums against sustained notes on tenor and trumpet. In time the soprano saxophone opens up a different region, agitated, erratic, cracking with febrile excitement as the ensemble revels in the sheer palpability of sound.

In contrast, “MULTA NOX” works on a different scale, a nocturnal study marked by the darker tones of the contrabass clarinet and an evanescent construction, summoned out of air. Glittering flecks of percussion, Guy’s light harmonics and muted trumpet float above subterranean murmurings. As the range expands the music gains in solidity with grisly smudges on clarinet and scraped bass strings, then thins to close as Wooley enunciates soft phrases over a sonorous repeated figure from Mockūnas. “MULTA LUX” takes a more animated approach, a fragmentary texture made up of daubs and dashes proceeding like a series of lines – crossed, broken, and reconnected – never fully resolved.

My only complaint is that the album is just under 37 minutes in duration, though admittedly that’s about average for an LP. This is a quartet full of potential and I was left wanting more, much more. In these melancholic times there’s no telling if and when that might be, but in the meantime in addition to the albums reviewed above you might want to try Mockūnas and Guy’s Lava (NoBusiness, 2012), also recommended.

MULTA DIES:

All three albums are available on vinyl (in limited editions of 300) and as downloads from the NoBusiness and Bandcamp sites.

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