The various gizmos that connected John Paul Jones’s bass to his MacBook were pristine and minimalist in comparison to the higgle of haywired hardware at yr usual Oto improv concert. A compact keyboard and a shiny touchscreen control panel sat on the tabletop, with a thin strip of boldly numbered, brightly illuminated buttons on the floor in place of the usual array of scuffed pedals and stomp boxes. The obligatory nest of connectors was conspicuously absent. Just off to the side a violin hung ready for its brief moment of usage.
Jones, of course, was once in Led Zeppelin. On guitar and electronics, Helge Sten is also known as Deathprod, a founder member of Norwegian avant-improv group Supersilent and a respected producer and dark ambient sound artist in his own right. Minibus Pimps music is very much more Sten’s territory than Jones’s, but the bassist seems well set up to explore it.
Although the ex-Zepper has been involved in a few eyebrow-raising collaborations in the past, including a memorable pairing with Diamanda Galas and an involvement in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Anna Nicole, he’s no doubt better known for playing with Them Crooked Vultures and a recent stint in Seasick Steve’s band. So the Minibus Pimps project is a brave one for him, and merely a toe in the water ahead of joint shows with Supersilent scheduled for later in the year.
On this evidence, there’s still some work to be done before Jones will sit comfortably within the thoroughly road-tested improv context of a Supersilent show. Much of his playing tonight seemed tentative, an impression reinforced by the noticeable delay between his bass playing and its mediation. Sten was more fully absorbed in his guitar playing and processing, ensuring that there was a constantly variegated vein of grainy ambient noise to envelop Jones’s exploratory analytics and interventions, with the occasional emphatic bass note or tentative thrumming roiling it into turbidity.
After a lull, the conclusion of the Minibus Pimps’ set was less diffuse, more fluent and assured than its beginnings. Jones seemed to put aside early uncertainties, abandoning attempts to resolve a problematic hardware disconnect and focusing more on the sampling of sustained bass tones. This freed Sten to drop more melodic and sometimes beautifully ethereal, upper-register skeins of sound into the mix. Briefly, the duo achieved a gripping unity of expression that boded well for future collaborations.
The highlight of the evening nevertheless came earlier, in a mostly superb performance by Steve Noble (drums) and Sebastian Lexer (piano with preparations), building on their short but successful set at the recent Freedom of The City festival.
Noble launched a belligerent, stabbing percussion attack, playing with sharp, aggressive percussiveness on gongs, cymbals and assertively tamped drums, while Lexer concentrated mostly on the piano’s harp and preparations, also frequently percussive, but more often bowing the strings for complex harmonics or using electronics to sensitively process sounds into rich, unusual timbres.
At some point the set lost its momentum, and each hiatus between staccato interventions seemed to beg an answer that wasn’t forthcoming. But as the set wore on, Noble increasingly allowed cymbal strikes to ring out in long, clear sustains that merged with resonant vibrations from Lexer’s piano, and towards its conclusion the set regained its previous vigour and then sublimated it, ultimately inducing an absorbing, almost meditative stillness.
Having previously turned to mallets to produce softer timbres, Noble finished by scraping loosely-bundled rutes end-on across cymbals to complement Lexer’s final dying sustains before flicking them whip-like through the air for a ghostly effect as a bridge to the encroaching silence.