FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004

FMP CD 19/20

Richard Cook


There's not much you can't do with a saxophone. Or, indeed, a clarinet. While those concerned over such things worry about where jazz will go next, whether improvising is finished or if there's anything 'new' to say, performers using the saxophone family go on fashioning fresh tongues to talk to each other in. The saxophone has always had a particularly vocal role to play. The horn players of the Twenties, with their exaggerated slap-tongue methods, were already making their instruments sound more glottal, more human, than those of their fellow bandsmen. You could hear the sound being modulated through the body of the horn, the jaws and lips and tongue moulding the phrases. The musicians were already expressionists.

Albert Ayler, the great American saxophonist of the Sixties, bypassed accepted saxophone technique to carve out a dense new vocabulary for the instrument: split tones, screams, phrases made up of a single blurted line, played until his lungs were empty. In Wuppertal, Peter Brötzmann was following much the same course, though to less tragic extremes of pathos and melancholy. One might say that saxophonists were reclaiming the horn's human characteristics - its irrational, sweat-and-tears persona - after years of smooth bebop virtuosity. Perhaps no other players have scoured the extremes touched by Albert and Peter since. But the most questing improvisers have refined and remodelled and amplified their discoveries to suit their own purposes, and discovered their own tongues in the process.

The music of Duets could stand as a primer in some current saxophone language. Tenor, soprano and sopranino instruments on one high side; bass clarinet and the superbly ponderous contra-bass clarinet on the other. And yet instruments which are apparently distant from one another sometimes sound disarmingly like-bodied. Listen to the currents of 'Ducking And Diving', where tenor and sopranino shadowbox so closely that the instruments sound as one in timbre and movement. As far apart as the sopranino stands from the contra-bass clarinet, woodwinds still find a common ground, some family dialect. It's customary today for reed players to double on different instruments: the singleton improviser, such as Steve Lacy, is a rare being. A player who secures proficiency on one member of the family nearly always gets the itch to try another horn. Some, such as Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell or Vinny Golia, change instruments almost obsessively. But maintaining the self across the pitch boundaries of the saxophone family is less easy than mastering the fingering.

In these dozen duets, each pursued to a staggering level of virtuosity, four characters provoke and parry their way through exchanges which are as livid and eloquent as anything spoken since those first language lessons of Ayler and Brötzmann. There are individual contributions of extraordinary power. Wolfgang Fuchs makes a manageable beast out of the hitherto impossible contra-bass clarinet, inventing areas of dance and filigree in the subterranean depths of the instrument which even Braxton has never discovered. Hans Koch gets a fractious, harassed sound out of the soprano, like sparks off ancient flints, and his dialogue with Evan Parker in 'Birds Of Prey' has a multiplicity of shape which can make an attentive listener go dizzy. Parker himself, the most renowned of contemporary saxophone virtuosos, is a primal element in this music. The techniques he's developed have been aspirational summits for many saxophonists, and all the improving on these recordings sounds to be informed by his discoveries. Louis Sclavis is someone at home in either improvisation, composition or fusion. His interest in the clarinet family is a refreshing one. He can match Parker blow for blow in the opening duet, the longest of all the pieces, and in its labyrinthine structure and vivid development it sets the tone for the entire session.

These are mostly long pieces. The three bulletins of 'Strongly Weather' are like a single revolving stage, which shifts as Sclavis and Koch change instruments, while the other improvisations explore the possibilities of dialogue at an often frenzied pace. There are few quiet statements, fever still where long notes and tones are explored ahead of jumping, agitated movements. The whirling molecules of 'Helmholz' are typical. There is occasional high contrast, as between Sclavis and Fuchs in parts of 'Schwalbe', but more often the players hurtle around and into and away from one another.

It's a lot of music, a long and demanding programme, but all it asks is your third-party involvement: let your ears sit in on this talking in tongues.

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