|Duos are a perilous exercise that requires exceptional qualities - spontaneity, inventivity, and an ability to truly listen. This is particularly true in an improvised context: it's all too easy to fall into austere minimalism or complete cacophony.
Although their respective backgrounds differ in many ways, Elton Dean and Mark Hewins both have a long and solid experience as improvisers. In addition to having played together regularly in the last two decades they have had many fruitful experiences in duo settings - Elton even released a whole tape of duos (with Keith Tippett, Howard Riley, Paul Rogers, etc.) in 1988 and a full set with fellow saxophone player Paul Dunmall, while Mark has made duo albums with Hugh Hopper (Adreamor) and Paul Bhattacharjee (New Indus), and had a long (but undocumented as yet) musical relationship with the late Steve Miller.
Elton and Mark first met at the turn of the seventies and eighties when Mark got involved in drummer John Stevens' Dance Orchestra. He had recently moved back to London after spending a few years in Kent playing mainly with members of the Canterbury 'school', and through Stevens, one of the prime movers on the London jazz/improvised music scene since the sixties, came the first opportunity of meeting and playing with many of the leading British jazz musicians.
Although Mark had seen Elton play with the likes of Stevens and Nick Evans, he wasn't really familiar with his work. "I was listening to people like Paul Bley of the minimalist movement at the time, not free-jazz per se", he remembers. And for Elton, Mark was a totally new face. "I liked his energy, and we quickly started playing together. At the time he was living in Tooting, and a lot of other players I knew also lived around there, like Liam Genockey, Marcio Mattos, Roger Turner, etc. So we'd all meet round at Mark's once or twice a week".
These early front-room jams turned into something else when Mark joined Elton in Soft Heap after Alan Gowen's death in 1981. As time went on they developed a habit of opening either the first or second set with a duo performance, before John Greaves and Pip Pyle joined in for the full quartet performance. "If there was ever a repertoire in Soft Heap, that was surely the only definite part of it", remembers Elton. And it soon took on a life of its own. "We discovered how well we gelled as a duo", adds Mark. "It started off as just a way of opening the gigs, but crowd reaction and the general vibe told us we had something going".
The starting point of the duo's musical concept was Soft Heap's unique art of collective improvisation. "The approach was of us experiencing with sounds as well as time and harmony, which is something I've always found Mark very good at", explains Elton. "When he's playing, there's always something fresh, sonically, that is coming behind and puts you in outer space. I like that".
The most unique feature of the duo is obviously Mark's groundbreaking guitar playing techniques, which involve both what he calls harmonic guitar and the use of advanced Midi technology. "The harmonic guitar techniques arose after I saw Hugh Metcalfe play one particular sound at a gig. I went home and explored the sound possibilities on my Gibson, using the body and inherent resonance. In its simplest form, the sound is produced by rubbing, blowing and tapping the guitar. I went on to develop the technique over many years. It was used on my solo album, 'The Electric Guitar', which was recorded for the most part in 1986, and is now a well-established part of my repertoire".
As for Midi, Mark sees it as "an adjunct - useful in certain circumstances". He is fully aware of the risk that lie in excessive recourse to modern technology as opposed to the human element. "The challenge is to make the music flow and avoid producing sounds which are obviously computer-generated. Having said that, you can't get away from the pure, unadulterated sound of the guitar without effects and enchancements, which is why I am also heavily into acoustic music. I do use normal guitar of course, but there are times when it is possible to achieve textural and other sounds by using Midi. I have fifteen guitars and use them all at different times for different sounds and effects".
The new sonic possibilities offered by Midi were a revelation for Elton. "I didn't know anything about Mark's synthesized guitar before the gig - the bird sounds and all the rest of it. I had no idea that was going to happen!... But that's what's great about us playing together. Mark is at his best just being there and supplying what becomes new areas. That's a very sympathetic approach, and an area that we consider our own - we grew together with it, as Mark was developing his techniques".
As Mark is keen to point out, his approach to the guitar "has proved a perfect foil for Elton to play against. It brought out the more melodic side of his playing, which I liked". Adds Elton, "I've always been a lyrical player. It's just that the harmonic base hasn't always been there - particularly if you haven't got a chord instrument in the band, then you're dealing with another set of situations and problems. But when you've got a tonality laid down - which is what Mark is doing - then you have to follow that. Chase the harmonies which, for the chord you're in, are going to work nicely".
The duo's performance at the Jazz Café was followed a couple of years later by a second one at another of London's famous jazz venues, the Vortex in Stoke Newington. Although Elton and Mark have since played together in other contexts, they have yet to follow up these, although they are both keen on the idea.
"Playing this music is an emotional experience that is second to none", Mark comments. "I feel as if the music is directing me, rather than me directing the music". And Elton concludes: "Duos have to be a very symbiotic occasion. A lot of it is down to chance and pure reaction. But when you're both going at the same speed, it can be very beautiful. And it was quite easy to do on that particular occasion...".