John Edwards and Okkyung Lee – White Cable, Black Wires
Although there is no shortage of recordings featuring the stellar double bass playing of John Edwards, few focus as intently on his inimitable sound-sourcing as this one. On White Cable, Black Wires he fuses the variegated close-focus of his 2008 solo album Volume (psi) with the marriage of improv techniques and 20th century modernist classical string textures heard in his work with the Stellari String Quartet.
Likewise for Okkyung Lee, the Korea-born, classically-trained, NYC-resident cellist with whom Edwards is here matched: for Lee, Edwards is just the latest in a string of judiciously chosen recording partners: Parker, Minton, Marclay, Lytton.
Vividly captured in a recording made by Sebastian Lexer at The Welsh Chapel, London, in May 2011, the Edwards/Lee pairing is texturally intimate, yet they remain stylistically unalloyed throughout: White Cable, Black Wires is a study in disambiguation.
The album presents a coherent suite of music that explores variations on a (relatively) narrow range of possible approaches. The five pieces it comprises are uniformly titled “WCBW” I-V.
Edwards kicks into “WCBW I” with a walk that could be extrapolated from Milt Hinton; meanwhile Lee bows in vigorously tight, sawing arcs. The piece opens up to embrace silences, Edwards rubbing wood with wetted fingertips, before a light yet corrosive flurry of dual bowing & harsh frottage. The music almost burns away, at one point, in vapourous upper register noise, only to return with horsehair-cushioned string percussive and blunter wood-strikes
The interplay on “WCBW II” is knotty and vigorous, at times almost frenetic, the duo bowing in slippery elisions. There are few deconstructivist, foley-type extended techniques on display here until the final four minutes, during which Edwards, briefly, thwhacks out a bare-knuckle rhythm.
“WCBW III”‘s soundworld is scoured and abrasive, constructed with layered and wildly yawing sheets of sound. Increasing playback volume during an apparent silence five minutes in reveals minute abrasives. Later, the duo overlap in parallel, skittering trajectories. There’s further separation in “WCBW IV”, on which chips of contrabass twang fly while Lee bows with resinous fluidity.
Finally, “WCBW V” starts with a weightless silence punctauted by tight snaps and light whorls of bowed strings—the playing here as spartan, as it is dextrous, as it is dramatic—and ends in a deep agitation of low-end vibration.
This is powerful, material yet highly sophisticated music that’s rich in both textural detail and melodic invention. It’s busy being born; its pleasingly sedimental roil enlivened by ear-snagging volatility. The players’ natures are well matched. Being both grounded and dynamically protean, these are instant composers.
Pat Thomas – Al-Khwarizmi Variations
Ditto the pianist Pat Thomas, one of the key players on London’s free scene; yet, even in that context, he’s hard to pigeon-hole.
Memorable recent concerts in London have featured Thomas playing synth in a jazz/noise duo with Mats Gustafsson’s electronics, and on piano with the Dutch drummer Han Bennink and London guitarist John Coxon.
In reviewing those concerts, I’ve noted Thomas’s explosive dynamism; his ability to alternate between utmost delicacy and detonations of violent, bomb-like chordal clusters; full-palm slaps; contrasting bold chords and beautiful melodic abstractions; playing harp-like beneath the piano lid; cross-handed, dervish arabesques. It’s all here, across ten, mostly concise numbered “Variations”.
Recorded in a London studio in June 2011, the sound of Al-Khwarizmi Variations is one of vital and almost shocking immediacy.
The first variation teems with high note-clusters; the third features raw, unidentifiable inside-piano noise generation, spartan harp-work, and even what Fataka’s Trevor Brent confirms is the occasional solitary trill of a mobile phone (“and there’s prayer beads and a bit of stick in there as well,” he says), before Thomas begins to essay a piano case-beat and harp-thrummed rhythm. He touches only sparingly on the keyboard here, so the riffles of ivory that flood the intro to “Variation 4” carry a heightened dramatic charge.
Thomas can often seem severe, and sure there’s a sere aspect to these brightly exposed excavations, but there’s undoubtedly a playfulness, albeit dryly expressed, never far from the surface of his improvising. Likewise he can be monolithic, as when exploring block-noise sequences, but can also play with thrilling fluidity, as when, four minutes into “Variation 4”, he digs unexpectedly deep into the roots of jazz piano with unalloyed joy; then there’s a sudden flash of violent anger, and a just-as-sudden lapse into brooding introspection. “Variation 5” sounds a contrasting cascade of brittle, light-reflecting sound-shards.
These variations could be typified as an exercise in maximal dynamic contrast, but Thomas, for all his mutability, is a highly individuated stylist, marked by quick-wittedness and improvisational certainty. Witness, for example, the dazzling cloud-dance of maximal dynamics that is “Variation 7”. Even the silences around which “Variation 9” slowly accretes sound distinctively imposing.
No one vibe can encapsulate Thomas’ playing, but this album comes close to demonstrating his range without forsaking its essential thematic unity. It’s perhaps light on impish humour (albeit, witness the sprightly darkness of the closing tenth variation), with which Thomas can undercut improvisations of excessive dryness, just as it is light on the single-mindedness he can bring to bear in performances of sustained tonal severity. It favours his own uniquely implacable take on improv/analytical classicism. And in doing so it serves as the heavyweight calling card he’s so long deserved.