The sheer sonic impact of the Trevor Watts / Veryan Weston duet is inevitably muted here because the recording puts you right onstage, giving it a different flavour than when I was sitting there with Watts' enormous sound rebounding around the hall. But the greater delicacy and transparency of the CD simply reveals other facets of the music. What's striking is how often the players choose to work within close quarters, deliberately stepping on each other's tracks rather than (as is more usual in improvised duets) trying to work at a safe distance or on parallel paths. The recording captures particularly clearly Weston's ability to play in a manner at once very precise and yet open-ended, constantly suggesting myriad avenues of exploration instead of closing them off.
One of the most powerful performances here is Sylvia Hallett's. She begins by bowing the spoke of a bicycle wheel, which produces a sound that is often very vocal. Each sound she produces and each instrument is like a thread added to an increasingly complex musical weave sustained by digital delay. Snatches of raspy balladry, shivery wails, sweet freshets of violin that become snagged in dissonance, low thrums - all these sound knit together and then drop away. At the end all that's left are faint wisps of bowed saw. For the encore, Hallett loops the sound of her tapping the microphone, and overlays it with some extraordinarily passionate playing on the sarangi.
Only part of the set by Lol Coxhill, Paul Rutherford, and the much younger trumpeter Ian Smith is presented here. The long, brightly coloured set-opener is mostly busy and abstract but on occasion almost verges on Dixieland polyphony. Smith plays well but nonetheless the two veterans steal the honours. The other track is a bit of a makeweight, a round of four one-minute solos; it brings the first disc to an unexpectedly muted close.
Guitarist Roger Smith rarely plays in public, and one's sense of a very private musical character was accented by the exceedingly soft dynamic level of his acoustic guitar. It was a real test for the ears, and even on the recording there are moments where you feel you'd need to have your ear pressed up against the instrument to quite follow every gesture. Like much of Smith's work the performance is marked by his patient accretion of flickering back-and-forth sweeps across the strings that return to more or less the same point from which they set out. Breaks in this cumulative process occur rarely but without warning: Sometimes the music withdraws even further into silence; on other occasions Smith states a disarmingly direct melody and then abandons it. At the piece's end is a startlingly uncharacteristic eruption of scrabbling, knocking and string-noise.
One unexpected highlight of the festival was Chris Burn's turn on the trumpet in duet with synth-player Matt Hutchinson; it provides the most sheerly entertaining music on this set, a crumbling comic dialogue that gets ever more fragmentary and distracted as it goes along. Working with a mute, Burn evokes everything from a truculent child to chimpanzee cries. Hutchinson counters with broken-calliope toots and vocalised R2D2 burbles.
The disc is rounded off by a duet by Evan Parker and John Russell. Parker starts out on soprano, playing with a breathy, beguiling lyricism. Russell's acoustic guitar work recalls Derek Bailey in terms of basic vocabulary while being otherwise decidedly unBaileyesque in its approach to structure, pace and methods of interaction - not to mention Russell's scratchy, plingy, sometimes half-choked sound that's very different from Bailey's more resonant playing. In the beginning Russell dawdles over octave figures that the older guitarist would have dispensed with quickly; instead, Russell hangs back, and it's only after several minutes that things start to get scrabbly and heated. And then he breaks a string. Parker covers for him with a circular-breathing solo, and Russell returns the favour with a brief solo of his own: crunchy twists of the tuning peg followed by a brisk scrub-down of the strings. Following this enforced interlude it seems we're back as square one - a slower-paced sequence with some gorgeously melancholy Parker arabesques - but this is deceptive. The rest of the set is decidedly combustible. Parker is in excellent form throughout, but the real stunner here is Russell, and he plays more abrasively and inventively with every minute. By the conclusion of Which End?, the players' musical relationship seems to have reached a kind of equilibrium - at which point (fittingly) the entire performance comes to a close.
Far too many discs drawn from music festivals are incoherent bundles of 'highlights' that leave one wishing for more from some groupings and nothing from others. This set is nothing like that: the musical quality throughout is exceptional, and except for the Coxhill/Rutherford/Smith concert, all sets have been presented entire. The Parker/Russell, Smith and Hallett sets in particular number among these musicians' best recent recordings. The set is highly recommended to followers of improvised music.
NATE DORWARD - CADENCE 2003