London’s improvised music scene would be greatly diminished minus the phenomenal double bassist John Edwards and Mark Sanders, the scene’s most versatile percussionist. So in demand are they that few weeks go by without one or the other putting in an appearance.
Just this week, I had the pleasure of seeing them play, both as a trio, and in an ensemble augmented by strings and electronics led by Wadada Leo Smith, who says he has plans to capture the trio on record. (The American trumpet player/composer has a longstanding relationship with the Treader label, and recruited Sanders for his 2009 Treader Abbey Road Quartet).
And as the label points out, Edwards and Sanders have previously recorded together numerous times, but it’s been fourteen years since their Nisus Duets (EMANEM, 2002).
On this hour long studio recording, Sanders plays what’s described as “an unorthodox kit setup with horizontal orchestral bass drum”, but the first sounds on “JEMS 1” (there are 12 pieces, all so straightforwardly titled, of which seven are done and dusted in under five minutes) are scraped-up metallic shimmers and brushed snare and cymbals over slippery bowed bass. Edwards’ bass coils and exerts pressure before he turns to plucking, loosing violent string snaps into Sanders’ skittish percussion, then slows back into sonorous rubbing.
This and two other of the longer pieces establish a broad MO that balances mutual attentiveness with the need for constant forward probing and inventiveness. “JEMS 2” is initially busy and frictional, dense with abrupt gestures, but evolves into something much slower and more ruminative.
The album’s longest cut at 10:20, “JEMS 3” extends from an intro that encroaches on silence into a febrile rustle-up of junkyard percussives, and frictional contrabass rubbing that Edwards draws into a taut sonic canvass.
While Edwards is most often praised for his in-concert stamina and extraordinarily energetic style, he’s heard here at his most resourceful, adapting a vigorous playing style that often favours expressivity over refinement to Sanders’ inventiveness: the drummer (who played with Jah Wobble for 12 years, e.g. in the bassist’s Deep Space), rarely essays repetitions, much less anything approaching a beat – so a necessarily brittle atmosphere remains highly-charged and volatile for the duration.
The shorter pieces vary from the febrile kindling of “JEMS 9”, through scorched-earth classicism (“JEMS 5”), to the jauntily off-beat (“JEMS 4”) and low-key probing of stress tensions in interstitial silences (“JEMS 11” and “12” ).
For freedoms exercised with more muscle, “JEMS 6” (8:15) is probably the most powerful piece, and it runs with barely a pause into the bubbling bass-strings and circular metallic scrapings that introduce “JEMS 7” (8:49), a piece with a rickety mechanical feel, in which the duo play with tension and release in taut strung pulses and mixed media skitter.
On balance, perhaps not one for the highly strung. JEMS is best dipped into when you’re happy to go with the flow, and can do with a passive injection of the duo’s abundant kinetic energy.
John Edwards double bass; Mark Sanders drums.
Roscoe Mitchell, Tony Marsh and John Edwards – Improvisations.
John Butcher and Mark Sanders – Daylight.
John Edwards and Okkyung Lee / Pat Thomas – White Cable, Black Wires / Al-Khwarizmi Variations.
Buy JEMS direct from Treader.