James Blackshaw and Lubomyr Melnyk first met in 2008, when each performed at an Estonian music festival. They next met in January 2012, when Melnyk played his first London concert at Cafe Oto. The Watchers (Important Records) was recorded the following day, at the nearby Vortex Jazz Cafe.
Although neither Blackshaw nor Melnyk are improvising musicians, they went into the session with only informal compositional structures, and restricted themselves to just two takes for each piece. As Blackshaw remembers:
“I’m not a great improviser. I always want to take that raw creative element that the form brings and work upon it, to distill and refine it further. I think Lubomyr feels the same. But there is something about these recordings that would be incredibly difficult to recapture. […] I would retune at random between songs and together we would find interesting chord progressions, hints of melodies and ways in which to weave those immense overtones that Lubomyr is able to generate on the piano with those of my guitar.”
Six hours of this yielded four pieces, each around ten minutes long, named for four of the brightest stars in our night sky.
On “Tascheter”, one guitar track sounds rather like a mandolin; combined with piano in an undulating wash of sound, with Melnyk’s left hand supplying an undertow of low end sonority, the mood is of swooningly romantic rapture. A beguilingly simple melody comes into focus as Blackshaw whittles down his cyclical picking to a naive pattern accompanied by a thumbed bass strum, while Melnyk concentrates on dazzling ripples of upper register harmonics.
Blackshaw breaks from the flux and flow of arpeggiation with a jagged little figure five minutes into “Venant”, and the improvisation subsequently flows around it.
Although they operate in notionally distinct fields of music making, in practice the duo have mutually sympathetic approaches: this album sits no less comfortably in either artist’s catalogue. Still, Blackshaw is the more seasoned collaborator (David Tibet, Jozef van Wissem), Melnyk the auteur; and these improvisations are all broadly faithful to Melnyk’s conception of “continuous music”, in which rapid note-series create complex patterns illuminated by a glow of resonant overtones.
Here, that methodology is applied less rigorously than on performances of his original compositions for solo or double-tracked piano, but Melnyk’s style is anyway naturally compatible with Blackshaw’s modal approach: the juxtaposition of slow harmonic and rapid surface rhythm in the guitar tracks blends beautifully with Melnyk’s arpeggios to produce a dreamily ocean-deep soundfield.
Melnyk’s technique, overtly, makes great play of speed (he’s self-billed as “the FASTEST pianist in the world”); so the rhapsodic, hypnotic “Satevis” and the dreamy, arcadian “Haftorang” must be among the most lulling and entropic pieces in his entire catalogue; and they are ravishing.
This isn’t a challenging album; far from it, there are more impressive works in each artist’s catalogue; rather, it’s a work of relaxed and unforced pleasures. The duo seem to ease each other out of the confines of their vaunted technical capacities and their respective self-imposed orthodoxies, and to play for the pure joy of creating this music.
Lubomyr Melnyk at Cafe Oto, 25 Jan 2013
Lubomyr Melnyk at Cafe Oto, 26 Jan 2012
Cyclobe, Myrninerest, and Derek Jarman Films at Meltdown 2012
Sunn O))) and Nurse with Wound at Koko, 12 June 2012