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Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Sara Schoenbeck – Sara Schoenbeck (Pyroclastic Records, 2021) ****

By Stef Gijssels

The bassoon is a rare instrument in improvised music. The musicians we've reviewed over the years include Claire De Brunner, Sara Schoenbeck, Aya Naito, Sophie Bernado, Katherine Young, Rebekah Heller, Dana Jessen, Karen Borca, and last Alessio Pisani, the only male representative in this list. 

Schoenbeck is credited as leader and co-leader on only four albums, although she's credited as an artist on no less than 72 albums, including work with Vinny Golia, Antonthy Braxton, Steuart Liebig, Harris Eisenstadt, Wayne Horvitz to name just a few. 

On this self-titled album, her first as a full leader, she invited nine musicians to perform duets with her, showcasing the power of her instrument, its versatility in different narratives, but also her skills as a composer and performer. The objective was also to pay tribute to these artists and their influence on her. 

Having listened to it dozens of times, it's hard to tell which of these duets is my favourite. It changes each time I listen. The opening track with Harris Eisenstadt on percussion is a clear winner (see video below). The long, plaintive, sustained notes are sparsely supported by Eisenstadt's subtle percussion, who colours the background for the slow piece to evolve and develop. 

On "Sand Dune Trilogy", she is in the company of flautist Nicole Mitchell, and both artists circle around each other in an avant-garde classical mode, with high interval shifts and counterpoint gradually moving to a more harmonised ending. The difference in pitch between both instruments offers an interesting sonic canvas. 

"Lullaby" with Nels Cline on guitar is again of a totally different nature. His more rock-influenced slow arpeggiated chords of the composition by the American indie rock band "Low", create a quite accessible foundation for Schoenbeck's extremely sad and melancholy playing, including stunning microtones. 

The relatively short duet with Roscoe Mitchell is surprisingly of less interest. Its abstract nature forms a stark contrast with the preceding piece. 

The longest piece is "Auger Strokes" with Matt Mitchell on piano (the third Mitchell in five tracks!), a partly composed piece that she commissioned from the pianist, and it is a true winner. Mitchell's playing varies between the playful and the lyrical, allowing surprise elements to intervene, rhythmic inventions, structural changes, and all this with such a relaxed openness to allow the bassoon to shine and take the forefront. 

The duet with Mark Dresser on bass, "Absence", starts as a freely improvised piece, until the bassist starts playing a solid vamp somewhere near the middle, shifting the dynamics of the improvisation. "Anaphoria" is the second duet with a pianist, this time Wayne Horvitz, who uses his keyboard sparingly, with little pointillist touches, contrasting with the sustained notes of the subdued bassoon. It is followed by a duet with Canadian cellist Peggy Lee, a more restless improvisation, with colliding and unifying moments, an abstract dance of two like-minded instruments. 

"Sugar", the last track with pianist and singer Robin Holcomb is not really my cup of tea, but that's a question of personal taste, not of quality. 

In all, the album is a strong statement, not surprisingly self-titled, as a kind of message: "here I am" or "this is who I am". Schoenbeck shows her virtuoso skills together with an incredible sense of musicality in various forms and contexts. The only downside of the album is due to its core concept: the unity between the nine tracks is Schoenbeck's bassoon, which diminishes the stylistic coherence of the album as whole, but you have to be an incredible grumbler to complain about this, considering the total quality of the music. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Watch the opening track O'Saris with Schoenbeck and Harris Eisenstadt: 


c.bellevie said...

I only recently picked this up, but rapidly becoming one of my favorite purchases this year - I suspect if I had picked this up last year it would have been on my top 10 list.

Tony Simon said...

Great review of an album I love. It's a moving and impressive statement of her artistry on a unique instrument, and the diversity of styles and partners offers much to appreciate!