Clarinet Record (Treader) isn’t ‘just’ a clarinet record. Alex Ward plays that instrument exclusively, as he did on his solo Treader Cremated Thoughts, but he does so over tracks laid down by John Coxon using guitars, handbells, kalimba, found objects, samples, turntables and a CDJ. And Coxon’s erstwhile partner in Spring Heel Jack, Ashley Wales, adds more CDJing and samples on the album’s fifth and final cut.
In a departure from Treader’s usual MO, the recording wasn’t live, in studio or in concert, but based on file sharing, with Coxon multi-tracking parts for Ward then to embellish.
Ward is ideal for this. As both a multi-instrumentalist with an aggressive guitar style of his own (cf. N.E.W., Deadly Orgone Radiation), and an impressive composer for improvising ensembles, he’s fully sympathetic to Coxon’s aesthetic.
Coxon, in concert, often seems artfully contrary, reluctant to play anything too obviously melodic or attractive, swapping restlessly between preparations or pausing, attentive, before casting a judiciously uncategorisable musical gesture or unrefined texture into the mix. That said, he can be straightforward: in a recent trio with Wadada Leo Smith, Coxon shaded one hushed passage with tremulous harmonica, which only seemed to catch the leader off guard.
The five cuts here are quite varied. “Southern” has Ward pitching a rapid agitation of notes into Coxon’s rummaging among found objects, then slowing when Coxon picks up an acoustic guitar, on which his playing approximates conventional melodicism so closely that ward seems compelled to sour it. But he mirrors a subsequent passage of fluent, looping fingerpicking with woody, songlike vocalisations. Coxon then turns to electric guitar for looped strumming and melodic gestures tweaked by effects, and Ward responds with circular breathing that morphs from throaty burbling into airy flocking sounds.
The whole album is as changeable.
Where “Southern” is innately musical, “Northern” has a five minute intro of darkly ominous textures enfolding sampled sound: gushing water, obfusc industrial rumbling, and low brass samples. Then a still, meditative setting of chimes signals change into a slow, looping round of hand percussion and guitar, with a vaguely African feel, and Ward, from stress-pitched metallic tones, relaxes into a passage of jazzy sensitivity indebted to Jimmy Giuffre.
“Western” is a hushed exercise in turntablism inspired by electroacoustic music, allowing Ward plenty of space in which to spin out sound. A brief burst of abrasive electric guitar introduces a passage of play reminiscent of John Zorn’s early improv conductions, with Coxon playing small percussive sounds, but Ward extends his songlike lines into a coda.
He’s more agitated on “Eastern”, the shortest piece, wailing in allusively oriental (Turkish/klezmer) style over a primitive slow rhythm Coxon drags up with chains over snare and guitar, and elaborates with variegated samples.
Which leaves only “Home”, the piece with Ashley Wales, where Coxon’s muted, multifarious gestures and a rhythm gently tapped out on a bass drum are set to a muted backdrop of slowed symphonic string sample loops, over all of which Ward plays some really lovely, liquid, ornamental solo lines.
Notwithstanding Coxon’s deference to Ward in Clarinet Record’s title, the album’s an excellent showcase for his own art, and for his role as Treader’s owner/curator too.
John Coxon electric and acoustic guitars, handbells, kalimba, found objects, Technics SL 1210 turntables, CDJ, samples; Alex Ward clarinet; Ashley Wales CDJs, samples.
Buy Clarinet Record direct from Treader.