Live At The Subtone
DUNS Limited Edition 002

PAUL DUNMALL Onosante DUNS Limited Edition 006

PAUL DUNMALL Manjah DUNS Limited Edition 007

Part of the so-called second generation of British improvisers, reedman Dunmall seems to have a stronger commitment to the jazz tradition than many others. That doesn't mean that he plays standards, but he's certainly in the lineage of intense sounds that owes more to saxophone visionaries like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler than contemporary European composers.

One-quarter of pianist Keith Tippett's freewheeling Mujician combo and, since 1987, a member of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, Dunmall, has started his own label to expose different facets of his work. At least from the evidence here, it's limited only in distribution, not musical imagination.

LIVE AT THE SUBTONE, where he limits himself to tenor saxophone, shows off his regular trio, which turned out two earlier CDs. ONOSANTE features two Mujicians — Tippett, and Dunmall playing four different horns — trading ideas with a guitarist and a drummer. MANJAH, with its vague South Asian mien, courtesy of M. Balachandar's mridangam, may reflect his long time interest in meditation.

The first CD was recorded in a club lively enough to have distracted conversation in the background, but with an audience interested enough in the proceedings that the musicians don't have to strain for effect — unless they wish. Cast in the mold of the free jazz power trio, this aggregation is unique in that the guitar of John Adams is substituted for the usual double bass. The two long tracks don't suffer from this change, however, since the bottom — when needed — is successfully provided by part of Mark Sanders drum kit. Meanwhile, Adams has the space to intertwine filigree of grace notes around Dunmall's dark, rhapsodic tone.

Not that it's completely the saxophonist's show, although the disc commences with a long limbed tenor triumph with minimal, muted accompaniment. On "Part Two", for example, Adams gets an extended chance to strut his stuff. Gentle counterpoint, a hint of flamenco and even what sounds like a blindly speedy, offside version of mainstream picking is mixed into the concoction.

Sanders, sideman of choice for modern music mavens ranging from British saxophonist Evan Parker to German pianist Georg Graewe, gets a couple of solo spots as well. But using cymbals and other percussive modulation, he certainly doesn't wear out his welcome.

Dunmall paces himself as the featured player. Altissimo blast offs are only used when the spirit moves him, while his chesty, Coltranesque note choices manages to bring each improvisation safely home with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of invention.

ONOSANTE is another matter. For a start, Dunmall gets to trot out a soprano saxophone, fife and bagpipes as well as his tenor. Secondly, when Tippet isn't working the edges of the piano keyboard, he dives inside and "prepares" the strings with small vibrating objects that spin a web of between-the-keys tones. Again a guitar is used in what commonly would be the bass slot, although Philip Gibbs appears to be more concerned with pure sound than accompaniment. Finally, though forceful enough in the background, drummer Pete Fairclough seems even more self-effacing than Sanders.

Centrepiece of the session is "For Lost Souls", an exciting, almost 35 minute, multi-section free improvisation. Beginning and ending as if Coltrane's last quartet had taken up residence in a Bristol recording studio, these segments contrast Dunmall's harsh soprano and tenor saxophone licks with Tippet's purposely heavy handed rhythmic forays, which often sound like two pianos at once. Using circular breathing and insistent keyboard explorations, the two nearly obliterate any other sound, in strange contrast to the piece's leisurely, central lyrical passages. Slowly easing in and out of repose, almost before you know it, time suspends, Dunmall begins quietly piping away on soprano and Tippet's invigorating pounding gives way to studied keyboard note pecking. With the proceedings open to Gibbs' color field he introduces tiny, ascending guitar neck scratches. Fairclough then contributes cymbal slides and bell tinkles until following a fife reference, the keyboard and saxophone cavalry arrives and the piece turns dense and red hot again.

Other, shorter selections are a little more conventionally jazzy, and serve as an appetizer and desert to "For Lost Souls". Throughout, the musicianship is at the same high level and the bass fiddle not missed in the least.

Then there's MANJAH, which despite the South Asian percussion really has no authentic ethnic exotic overtones. That's because Balachandar uses the two-headed hand drum as a Siamese twin version of the conga and bongos.

Improvising on top of Eastern-inflected beats has been around since the days of Joe Harriott and John Mayer in the 1960s. It would seem that the trio members here merely look on this instrumentation as just another way of doing business

With Dunmall on soprano saxophone throughout and no trap set around, the resulting sound is lighter than that on the preceding disc, so Gibbs' contribution is more upfront. Unlike ONOSANTE, where he served as a color commentator, here he concentrates on the acoustic guitar, strumming unvarying string sounds that mesh perfectly with the drums' rhythms.

On "I Could Yak It" — the longest track — for instance, there are times when you may find it difficult to separate Gibbs' sound from the mridangam's beat, so well do they mesh. Instructively, the only real difference between most of the loose-limbed sax smears that Dunmall produces here and his soloing on the other sessions is the backing. Certainly the screeches he produces on "Yellow Paste" would be recognized more easily in New York than New Delhi. Other times, though, the end result is so airy that he could almost be playing the sort of flute featured in East Indian music: raga meets Revolutionary Ensemble.

Even the title tune, which is a solo showcase for Balachandar's drum, finger snapping and South Asian scat doesn't sound out of place. You may marvel how the percussionist gets so many tones out of his tiny percussion instrument, when rock drummers only produce a monotonous sameness from their giant set up.

All in all, each of these discs offers a complementary, but varied look at Dunmall's music. Each is absorbing in its own way. And one or all will probably attract most people interested in high calibre improv.

—Ken Waxman

Live: Track Listing: 1. Yelling For You 2. Yelling For You Part Two

Personnel: Paul Dunmall (tenor saxophone); John Adams (guitar); Mark Sanders (drums)

Onosante: Track Listing: 1. Song and Dance and 2. For Lost Souls 3. Onosante 4. Manosante

Personnel: Paul Dunmall (soprano and tenor saxophone, fife, bagpipes); Keith Tippett (piano) Philip Gibbs (guitar); Pete Fairclough (drums)

Manjah: Track Listing: 1. Soonachudra 2. I Could Yak It 3. Manjah 4. Speaking About Others 5. Yellow Paste

Personnel: Paul Dunmall (soprano saxophone); Philip Gibbs (guitar); M. Balachandar (mridangam, voice)