Thursday, May 11, 2023

Solo Double Bass Day 1

By Eyal Hareuveni

I cannot explain in logical, human terms my fascination with solo double bass deep tones, and how such resonant tones keep my sanity in a volatile and intense environment. Now, it becomes a yearly tradition of the Free Jazz Blog, and here are reviews of 16 new (or not so new) mostly solo double bass albums. Take your chances and you may surprising way to re-calibrate your minds.

Joëlle Léandre - Zurich Concert (Intakt, 2023)

Joëlle Léandre's solo Zurich Concert was recorded at Taktlos-Festival at Kunstraum Walcheturm in Zürich in March 2022, and, as expected, it is an inspired and sublime performance. Léandre plays arco, obviously, with her astounding bowing techniques, but also with great passion, subversive wit and clever irony, powerful and ecstatic energy and poetic, compassionate tenderness. 

She is a force of nature and you can sense her once-in-a-lifetime free spirit personality in this concert. The double bass becomes an elastic material in her hands, an extension of her body and soul, and tells imaginative and free-associative stories. There is no earthly power that can stop her spontaneous and intuitive creative energy when she picks her beloved and faithful instrument. 
The Viennese, fellow double bass player-musicologist Nina Polaschegg, who wrote the liner notes, calls the French master a “true magician of sound” and she is totally right. Zurich Concert is another tour-de-force performance of Léandre, and you can feel the appreciative audience bewitched and only wish that you were there too.

Mark Dresser - Tines of Change (Pyroclastic, 2023)

Mark Dresser is not only a true master of the double bass but also a lifelong researcher, innovator and conceptualist of the bull fiddle's almost infinite sonic possibilities, and a rare musician who treats his instrument as an orchestra rather than a string instrument. Dresser finds in the double bass orchestras within orchestras, crosscurrents of harmonic and multiphonic inspiration that engage in captivating and entrancingly beautiful dialogues.

On Tines of Change, his sixth solo double bass album, Dresser presents a dozen new explorations performed on unconventional four and five-string basses crafted by the Colorado-based bassist and luthier Kent McLagan. The title refers to those basses’ most striking feature, an array of metal tines affixed to a secondary bridge. Like the strings, these tines can be plucked or bowed, offering a variety of sounds from the percussive to the ethereal. McLagen also embedded hand-wound individual magnetic pickups into the fingerboard of the bass, one set below the nut and the other at the octave. These additional pickups allow Dresser to sound up to three different pitches on each string, as well as amplify subtle tones and pitches that might otherwise go unheard in a live or collaborative setting.

With these innovative double basses, Dresser experiments, sculpts and orchestrates microtonal, produces soft and exotic flute-like sounds, or crafts mysterious polyphonic dialogs with himself. He juggles with suggestive overtones and percussive beats and explores deep harmonic sonorities and multiphonics that evoke the overtone-rich tradition of throat singing. Dresser’s sonic vision is always compelling and insightful, always performed with inspired musical command, beauty and elegance, and, obviously, always reveals so many surprising, different and distinct voices of the double bass.

Håkon Thelin - Random Partials/ Twinings (Peninsula Audio Records, 2023)

Håkon Thelin - Spektralkompass/Sterbendes Hertz (Peninsula Audio Records, 2023)

Norwegian double bass master-composer-eductor Håkon Thelin calls his new two albums, released on his newly-founded label Peninsula Audio Records, a label for experimental double bass music, a “seismic change of style, a massacre of elements where everything but the pure essence has been shaved away”. Thelin's radical new music focuses on the study and research of purely personal interests in sound and technique, and Thelin means idiosyncratic and idiomatic techniques that originate from the instrument itself and push the limits, in one way or another. 

Random Partials/Twinings, with the Japanese, Oslo-based pianist Sanae Yoshida, is a methodical, minimalist work (he elaborates on each piece and adds notes and instructions on his website). “Twinnings” is based on two different approaches to exploring the aural difference between pure intonation on the double bass and equal tuning on the piano. Each section of the piece is introduced by a 7-note theme from a Norwegian folk melody played on overtones on the double bass and combined with the unison equal-tuned notes of the piano. Thelin employs a technique he has learned from Mark Dresser which turns the intonation of the double bass as it gradually slips away (in micro-intervals) from the equal-tuned piano, and makes the double bass sings suggestive and poetic, otherworldly overtones. 

The 43-minute ”Random Partials” is described by Thelin as a “blissful mix of Alvin Lucier and John Cage”. Its 1-16 harmonic version plays the double bass harmonic partials (just intonation) with the corresponding “unison” tones on the piano, one at a time, as a sustained, slowly fading sound. Thelin and Yoshida create a randomly selected series of partials until all partials are used, and then the piece ends. This piece has a more austere,ritualist-meditative atmosphere.

On Spektralkompass/Sterbendes, Hertz Thelin plays two to eight double basses and sine tones and is accompanied by British, Oslo-based sound artist Natasha Barrett who plays logarithmic sine tone glissando on the six “Spektralkompass” pieces (plus two variations, all clock in about 7:40 minutes). These pieces are an evolving series of works exploring spectral qualities in different playing techniques on the double bass and rely on two sine tones that start in unison and move slowly apart in a long, continuous glissando movement. The double bass lines in all the works imitate the sine tone glissandi and add various sonic phenomena such as beatings, multiphonics, and an extended bowing technique called “spectral phase difference”. Thelin references here the innovative works and the extended techniques of double bass pioneer masters such as Italian Stefano Scodanibbio (especially his seminal Voyage That Never Ends, New Albion, 1998) and Fernando Grillo, or Mexican contemporary composer and double bass player Rodrigo Mata. These urgent and extremely resonant pieces are disorienting, leading the listener into a labyrinth of enigmatic and almost orchestral, voluminous sounds. 

The 34-minute “Sterbendes Hertz” for double bass and sine tones “takes emotions that emerged during a demanding period of the corona pandemic, and transforms them into sound”. It reflects growing dissonances within the family and society and structures that are gradually disintegrating and coming together again. This piece is organized in repeated sections of 30 seconds, and in each section, two unison (or almost unison) sine tones move apart in step-descending or ascending intervals while the open strings of the double bass are almost imperceptibly tuned down or up to match the sine tones. Thelin recommends listening to this piece with headphones due to the very low sine tones. This is an unsettling piece that captures faithfully the stressful era but its stubborn delivery on a way out of this emotional maze. 


Brandon López - vilevilevilevilevilevilevilevile (Tao forms, 2023)

The in-demand, New York-based double bass player Brandon López says that vilevilevilevilevilevilevilevile is “less about -a thing- than it is about perceptions of things, questioning those perceptions, and possibly altering them”. The title refers to López’ “very personal and obsessive thoughts on what actions are considered vile and evil and how arbitrary our decisions are to proclaim ‘anathema’ while we get on our knees for the president or prime minister, king, queen, the banker, the pope, and praise war unquestionably”.

In a conversation with Kurt Gottschalk who wrote the liner notes, López expanded on his debt to the innovative ideas of double bass masters - William Parker’s musicality, Joëlle Léandre’s bowing techniques (“she scares the shit outta me”) and Peter Kowald (“he was one of those players who destroyed the conception of what it meant to have a beautiful sound”). López follows these masters’ path: “The music that I make is kind of the opposite of what would be considered beautiful. I want to make something beautiful and exquisite and complicated through processes that are not considered correct”.

López, like what Léandre always advises, plays what he has learned and what he tries to unlearn. He does so as if he is totally possessed by the urgency and intensity of the moment, obsessed with complex and dense ideas, exploring subtle timbral territories with commanding and highly inventive technique and boundless power. López sounds like he can do whatever he wants with the double bass - sing, moan, unburden frustrations, take risks and flirt with danger or even seek sonic salvation. But he refuses to answer Gottschalk if mysticism plays an active role in his playing, as it does in Parker’s playing. “There are some things we don’t ask about”, he says. vilevilevilevilevilevilevilevile may be one of the most beautiful solo double bass albums in the least beautiful manner possible.

Gonçalo Almeida - Compositions for Double Bass (Cylinder, 2022)

Prolific Portuguese, Rotterdam-based double bass player Gonçalo Almeida presents four compositions for solo double bass. Almeida performs these demanding and complex compositions brilliantly with inspiring command of his instrument.

The first one “MPK” (Memoriam for Peter Kowald, 2005) by Greek composer-educator Thanos Polymeneas-Liontiris for double bass and live electronics. This composition celebrates Kowlas as an exceptional human being and was inspired by Kowald’s great musician's metaphysical credo for music and life. Polymeneas-Liontiris met Kowald, and, obviously, this meeting informed and inspired his life and music. Almeida performs this complex piece with passionate and uncompromising energy, as one can expect Kowald would do. The second piece “Walk” (2007, revised 2020) by Polish interdisciplinary composer Michał Osowski for a double bass solo aims to create a sonic image of a peaceful and leisured walk, with enough space for episodic improvisations and meditative thoughts. This minimalist and highly resonant drone piece demands a total command of its difficult-to-execute progressions.

The third piece “Mangled Counteract” (2022) by fellow Portuguese drummer Pedro Melo Alves for double bass solo, was written especially for Almeida. It is based on the irregular repetition of fixed sound events, and Alves describes it as a “raw approach to the concept of broken balance as it is a stable embracing and somewhat ethereal landscape on itself”. Almeida introduces a ritualistic vein to this composition that evokes “eternal limbo, cut only by a melody in distress”. The fourth composition “Ritual More or Less Defined (2017, revised 2022) by Dutch drummer-composer-visual artist Friso van Wijck (who worked with Almeida in the Bulliphant quintet) for prepared double bass, tape and live electronics, was written for and dedicated to Almeida, with advice from Almeida. This mysterious, sound-oriented composition employs various notational approaches and flirts with abstract sounds, noise and the lowest possible detuned sounds.

Mirco Ballabene - 7 composizioni Improvvisate Per Contrabbasso Solo (Niafunkem, 2023)

The debut solo double bass album of Italian Micro Ballabene dedicates four “Composizione improvvisata” to influential double bass masters whose techniques, and, obviously, their extended techniques, inspired Ballabene - Mark Dresser’s double pizzicato, Stefano Scodanibbio’s alternation between ordinary notes and harmonics, Peter Kowald’s energy and Joëlle Léandre’s tremolo, and another one to fellow Italian contemporary composer Salvatore Sciarrino. Clearly, Bellabene is well-versed in the complex and challenging work of these innovative musicians, improvisers and composers.

Ballabene uses the term “Composizione improvvisata” as these pieces, and five other pieces (the sixth one has four movements), were shaped over time, through many executions and adjustments, while he was exploring techniques, timbral palette and compositional strategies, but never written as compositions and are still feel free, urgent and open. Furthermore, there is a tendency for each piece to be strongly recognizable from the others, favoring the vertical dimension of the deep excavation, rather than the horizontal dimension of the plurality. Bellabene performs with commanding authority and energy, impeccable and creative techniques and imaginative sonic vision, always willing to take the double bass to its most extreme and unchartered sonic regions. “Composizione improvvisata n. 5 (per Salvatore Sciarrino)” for prepared double bass with colored plastic toy nails inserted into the strings is a masterful piece and corresponds wisely with Sciarrino’s compositions for flute which demanded from its performers an abundance of unusual and inventive sounds. Ballabene is a true hero of the double bass. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Beliah / Heilbron / Majkowski / Shirley - Bertrand Denzler: Low Strings (Confront, 2023)

Low Strings
is the composition of Swiss-French composer-sax player Bertrand Denzler for a double bass quartet featuring French Sébastien Beliah, Australian Jon Heilbron and Mike Majkowski and Canadian Derek Shirley, recorded at Ausland in Berlin in Marc 2022. Denzler already explored the sonic range of the double bass in Basse Seule (confront, 2020), a series of études and pieces composed for French double bass player Félicie Bazelaire. Both compositions for the double basses are from 2016.

Low Strings offers two versions of this composition, number 4 and 3, and both are, obviously, dark and deep-toned drones focusing on a sense of almost statis, created by a patient and methodical sustained bowing of the double bass strings that in its turn creates harmonic dynamics. The minimalist and subtle variations of this composition, with their profound investigation of the dark and often dissonant timbral palettes, only intensify the hypnotic impact of the double basses' encompassing waves of slow resonating vibrations and suggests a sense of being out of time and lost - willingly - within the vibrations of the low strings.


Bára Gísladóttir - SILVA (Sono Luminus / ESP-Disk, 2023)

Bára Gísladóttir is an Icelandic, Copenhagen-based contemporary composer and double bass player, who mostly plays solo her own music or with her long-time collaborator and fellow Icelandic bassist Skúli Sverrisson. She describes SILVA as “a work for processed double bass built on the idea of a downward growing forest, living its own secret life of underground raves and meditative cohesiveness”. 

Gísladóttir plays the double bass, processed to various degrees (with MAX/Live) and layered into a mass of noise. She adds that she was intrigued by the thought of “something that would otherwise naturally grow upwards, in reach for light and surrounded by air, rather being drawn in the opposite direction where darkness and solid form serve as the source of gleaming luminosity and breezy surroundings”. The 57-minute SILVA is a powerful and suggestive composition that extends, processes and manipulates the timbral palette of the double bass to new and surprising terrains and transforms the instrument into a vivid and tangible entity. It also reflects Gísladóttir’s inclusive sonic vision, experimenting with elements of contemporary music, metal, noise, drone, techno, and electronica. 

Nils Vermeulen - variations (Aspen Edities, 2023)

variations is the debut solo album of Belgian double bass player-luthier Nils Vermeulen, known for his collaborations with Paul Lytton, Seppe Gebruers, William Parker, John Dikeman and Luis Vicente. The versatility of his work includes free improvisation, jazz and contemporary music, and his own groups Kabas and Jukwaa. The title of the album refers to the saying of French philosopher Henri Bergson: “Matter thus resolves itself into numberless vibrations”.

The album was recorded at the empty Ghent Opera in July 2022, where every note, attack and vibration comes through, including the creaking of the wooden door. The strings Vermeulen uses on this recording are inspired by traditional gut strings, and have lower tension to let the instrument resonate freely. Vermeulen explores an array of extended techniques in composed and improvised pieces, some even depart from or tend to almost mathematical material, countered by Vermeulen's highly intuitive playing. He dedicates an imaginative piece to Stefano Scodanibbio and explores multitudes of, obviously, resonating but beautiful, dramatic or lyrical and emotional, deep-toned vibrations, all stressing his profound, continuous physical dialog with his instrument and its new strings.

Bruno Råberg - Look Inside (Orbis, 2023)

Swedish, Boston-based since 1981 double bass player-composer-eductor (he is a professor at Berklee College of Music) Bruno Råberg releases his first solo album when he is 68 years old. Look Inside is, obviously, an introspective journey that reflects his wealth of experiences and studies, from investigations of jazz standards to explorations of Indian and African traditions, and free improvisation to through-composed chamber music. It took Råberg some time until he managed to stop overcompensating for the lack of collaborators and distill the essence of the music. The music aims to make a composition sound like it is an improvisation and improvisation like it is a composition, but all stress a highly melodic but reserved approach and is performed in an elegant and agile eloquence on the double bass. The album is released on Råberg’s Orbis label.

Råberg let his instrument sing like the African kalimba on “Kansala” and links it to a beautiful interpretation of Miles Davis’ classic “Nardis”. “Chennai Reminiscence” reflects on Råberg’s studying of South Indian classical music, with his suggesting exotic, sinuous violin-like lines, percussive rhythms, and vivid harmonies. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s iconic “Prelude to a Kiss” and George Gershwin's “My Man’s Gone Now” receives touching, lyrical readings. The free improvise “Gyrating Spheres” is the only piece where Råberg dares to be ‘out’ with a few extended percussive techniques. Råberg closes this gentle album with a meditative tone with “Ode to Spring” and “Stillness –Epilogue”.

Vinicius Cajado - LUNA (Urchin, 2023)

The double bass playing of Brazilian, Vienna-based Vinicius Cajado was already praised by Joëlle Léandre, with whom he recently performed in a double bass duet. LUNA is Cajado’s sophomore solo double bass album, inspired by a famous quote by John Cage: "I have never listened to a sound without liking it". It features a 26-minute piece for an unprepared double bass player that meditates on Cage’s Zen Buddhism-tinged abstraction of sounds and nothingness and seeks to be “submerged in sound until you wake up”. Cajado does so with a commanding, possessed-in-the-moment performance. He lets the sounds of the double bass guide him in an organic but also unpredictable manner, but assembles these sounds into a poetic narrative, and with a color palette and vocabulary of his own.

Manu Mayr - Sequenz I - Burning Gas for Solo Acoustic Double Bass (why Keith Dropped The S, 2023)

Italian experimental composer Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas can be characterized as extremely difficult solo works, which propelled instrumental and performance possibilities forward, and in fact, codified new technical standards in the area of contemporary and experimental music. Fellow Italian double bass master Stefano Scodanibbio adapted Sequenza XIVb for double bass and highlighted its abstract rhythmic patterns by creating a variety of extended techniques. Viennese double bass player Manu Mayr, known for his parts in the contemporary ensemble Studio Dan and experimental bands 5K HD, Kompost 3 and Gabbeh, takes this challenging and iconic contemporary composition of double bass literature even further. He uses masterfully the double bass body with intricate plugging and bowing and creates a multilayered and multi-faceted sounding interpretation, and suggests its strong sense of formal structure within the nuanced improvised parts. To give an updated edge to this composition, he added the title Burning Gas, referring to his gas-powered water heater that can be heard in the background, and as a sign of his dismay at the “crazy capitalist free energy market” prices. Still, playing acoustic music gives him, and us - the listeners - some - and even some more kind of temporary relief.

Devin Ray Hoff - Music for Bass Cats (Self Released, 2023)

The last album here is played on electric bass but by New York-based double bass player Devin Ray Hoff, known for his parts in the Nels Cline Singers and his collaborations with Marc Ribot, Steve Bernstein, Sharon Van Etten and Julia Holter. Hoff likes to stay at home as much as possible with his two favorite monsters - the wonderful cats, Liebchen and Dee Dee Ramone. This single Music for Bass Cats is dedicated to these felines, who apparently like Hoff playing bass for them. “Liebchen” is a playful Fender fretless bass song, augmented with samples, while “Dee Dee” is a more meditative and lyrical soundscape that expands the sonic range of the electric bass with effects and samples.

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