Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings

Pierre Favre
Drums and Dreams
Intakt CD 197

Barre Phillips
Traces: Fifty Years of Measured Memories
Kadima Collective Triptych #5

Until the late 1960s, the solo improviser who wasn’t playing a keyboard was an unusual figure, though there’s an oft-recited history of jazz reed players that conventionally begins with Coleman Hawkins’ recordings of “Hawk’s Variations” and “Picasso,” circa 1945-47, and includes Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy and Jimmy Giuffre. Solo pieces became a common feature for several AACM members in the mid- to late- ‘60s, with Anthony Braxton’s two-LP For Alto (1968) becoming a key document in solo improvisation, a work in which compositional experimentation, free improvisation and a focus on sonic exploration conjoined to extend the terrain of the solo improviser. Since then solo performances have become one of the standard presentation modes of improvised music, often involving an array of personal or extended techniques. These two special packages in part commemorate the moment when it became possible to be a solo improviser on any instrument, even those that just a few years before were apt to be relegated to the rhythm section.

Barre Phillips’ Traces: Fifty Years of Measured Memories is part of Kadima Collective’s Triptych series, each release combining a book, a CD and a DVD, and all devoted to the string bass. So far, the series has focused on Mark Dresser, Joëlle Léandre, Tetsu Saitoh and to the Deep Tones for Peace project, an all-bass choir linking Jerusalem and New York that involved all of the preceding and added Rufus Reid, William Parker and several others, including label administrator Jean Claude Jones. Dresser, Léandre and Bertram Turetsky frequently figure on the bass-centric label’s individual releases, as does Phillips.

The book component is a 150-page volume that functions in part as discography but is also a visual celebration of a career spanning more than fifty years. First organized as a display in the French village Phillips calls home, it has gradually become a beautiful book. There are a few photographs of Phillips sprinkled throughout but it’s predominantly a life in album covers, full-color illustrations of all the LPs (usually a full page) and CDs (usually two to a page) that Phillips has appeared on since 1963. Data on the discs only appears at the end of the book, so you get to explore Phillips’ career in the changing terms of album cover art (whether his name appears there or not) – and what a career it’s been, both for range and quality. Phillips quickly made his name in free-jazz circles of the early-sixties (his earliest appearances are with Eric Dolphy [though released long after] and Archie Shepp), and he’s been an essential figure in improvised music ever since, including a legendary collaboration with John Surman and Stu Martin as The Trio. The early years include some particularly striking dates: there’s an appearance with Don Ellis on a presentation by Leonard Bernstein; he’s a member of the Bob James Trio on Explosions – yes, that Bob James – a singular and brilliant journey into free jazz and pre-recorded electronic tapes; there’s even a record with the Peter Nero Trio – yes, that Peter Nero. One of the most telling things about Phillips’ art is the frequency of his appearances with other significant bassists, including duets with Dave Holland, Peter Kowald, Joelle Leandre, and Barry Guy, as well as his presence as bassist in the latter’s London Jazz Composer’s Orchestra.

The recording is a critical document in the history of the string bass as a solo instrument, the first CD reissue of Phillips’ 1968 solo recording, first issued as Journal Violone. That suggestion of daily ritual is one with the music’s concentrated meditation and free play of consciousness. The CD consists of two LP side-long improvisations, each a passage through multiple techniques: plucked chords, lyrical pizzicato lines, thick bowed chords and sudden cello-like flights into the upper register, as well as dense orchestral textures compounded of spizzicato bowing and simultaneous strumming and plucking of the strings. As with the best solo improvisation, there is a kind of virtuoso reverie in action here, instrument and musician, execution and thought becoming indistinguishable.

That sense of depth involvement only expands with the DVD, Temporaneous, a remarkable update from 2011 in which Phillips, at home, alternately plays and talks (during which he sometimes also plays) exploring every niche of the bass’s sonic resources with multiple percussive, bowing and fingering techniques. His spoken reflections on music – from what he describes as his childhood immersion in a soundworld to his thoughts on what musicians communicate – are beautifully expressed, as rich, resonant and varied as the soundworld he draws from his bass. It’s a striking portrait of a great musician.

Pierre Favre’s Drums and Dreams is a more conventional package, a three-CD set of the percussionist’s first three solo LPs, made for several small European labels: it includes Drum Conversation (Calif-Verlag 1970); Abanaba (Futura 1972); and Mountain Wind (Gemini 1978). In the same spirit as Phillips, Pierre Favre set about creating a solo music out of drums and percussion instruments. He clearly had many traditions to draw on, including jazz, the “classical” avant-garde – the early Cage percussion pieces, for instance – and traditions from West Africa, South East Asia, and Japan.

The percussion solo utterly alters the terms of solo improvisation, since many percussion instruments have complex pitches that resist melody and harmony. On the other hand, the development of the trap-drum kit in the late 19th century, along with its continuing principle of expansion and combination, resulted in tremendous potential for rhythmic complexity and sonic variety. In Favre’s drumming, polyrhythmic practices, drum tuning, the ceremonial drumming of Japan and innumerable folk traditions all appear, sometimes in relative isolation and sometimes coming together in long pieces that develop both distinctly and in synchronicity.

There’s a sonic poetry, a kind of absolute clarity in which Favre’s considerable technique and his collection of instruments never get in the way of a kind of will to clarity. It’s already present on Drum Conversation and it develops steadily to Mountain Wind, even as the individual pieces get progressively longer on each CD and the fascination with sonic textures stretches to a Balinese grace. There’s a series of pieces in Abanaba that particularly demonstrates the range of techniques. “Kkatybaby” might be as close to speech phrasing as drumming can get, Favre starting out stating a relatively simple phrase, though with detailed inflections of pressure and pitch. He will then repeat the phrase, shifting instruments, pressing in more notes, making the pattern more complex and allusive, until slowing it down reducing it to an absolute clarity and finality. In contrast, the next track “Kyoto” is concerned absolutely with a kind of ritual of space, isolated sounds of gong and woodblock and wonderfully hollow pitch-eliding, shimmering, almost theremin-like, sounds. The recording emphasizes a sense of space, suggesting that Favre is somehow in touch with instruments spread over a thirty-foot span.

That sense of breadth takes on different significations with each new piece. “Roro” focuses on polyrhythmic tom-tom work and may suggest a village in the Congo or Eddie Blackwell (or Gunter “Baby” Sommer in this complex and on-going love affair of central Europe for central Africa). The sonic focus of “Gerunius” embraces scraped metal, light gong touches and a beautiful metallic resonance that somehow suggest the theatre has become internalized, a kind of mental wonderland in which sounds arise with an hypnotic delicacy. The next piece “YesYes” is doubly affirmative, seeming to insist that the psychic world and the village circle are one – beginning and ending in isolated sounds and hollow metal resonance and embracing polyrhythmic density in the middle of the piece. These sonic and rhythmic adventures arise and conjoin throughout the three discs with a consistent pattern of development on many fronts. The final track on Mountain Wind, “Alexis Cadillac,” is as spare, concentrated and speech-like as drumming might become. It’s significant work, certainly, but more than that, it remains insistently pleasurable listening over forty years after Favre launched his solo improvisation project.
–Stuart Broomer

Aum Fidelity

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