September 10, 2001
MATT TURNER/JOHN HARMON
Stellar Sounds STL 1011
The Mouse That Roared
Meniscus Records MNSCS 002
Never do anything by half measures. The truth of that hoary aphorism is made clear by the frustrating duo disc by cellist Matt Turner and pianist John Harmon.
The Wisconsin-based cellist usually spends his time in the so-called avant garde area, recording advanced sounds with the likes of experimental guitarist Scott Fields or, as he shows on THE MOUSE THAT ROARED, on his own.
However OUTSIDE IN appears to be an attempt to broaden his base, with six of its 11 selections given over to Tin Pan Alley or jazz standards plus an ancient hymn. With the other tunes impressive Turner/Harmon instant compositions, the CD reveals its weakness. The covers aren't performed differently enough to impress those committed to new sounds, while the five originals may alienate neo-con mainstreamers.
That's a shame, but something the two musicians should have realized. On the standards side of the fence, Harmon is pretty much cast in the accompanist role, playing Bill Evans to Turner's Miles Davis or Ralph Sharon to the cellist's Tony Bennett. Most of the tunes don't escape from their expected theme and variation presentation, with only a few audible deviations.
Unsurprisingly these digressions are most prominent on Ornette Coleman's "Roundtrip", which is also inspired choice as a purported standard. During it, Harmon manages to free himself from sideman bondage and toss in a few unconnected piano chords as Turner uses his bow to saw back and forth on the strings, after having seemingly almost pulled the neck from his instrument at the tune's beginning. Simultaneous piano thumps and cello screeches explode before the melody is reintroduced.
Turner's cello rumbling in the last third of "Solar" is probably the only other norm-deviation that could make mainstreamers queasy about the conventional tunes. Reverberating like a power lawnmower or perhaps a jet plane taking off, the sound forces Harmon into a more intense version of the theme during his solo. That theme itself remains pretty unaltered though, which is the criticism that could be leveled against the duo's treatment of the other standards.
Much more innovation goes into the originals. The cello's naturally melancholy tone perfectly personifies "Mourning". Later the sound morphs into a walking bass line to accompany what could only be termed flamenco flourishes from the piano. Turner then drums on his instrument to turn it into wood percussion before reverting to the sad, gypsy-like tone that began the piece.
"Rabid Poultry", on the other hand, features some of Harmon's most inspired comping as Turner moves from nearly inaudible forays on the instrument's bridge to what sounds can be created by hitting a cello's sides with a bow and rolling small balls within it.
The simplest, but most effective, tune is "Ground Zero", which begins as an out-and-out blues with Turner inverting and strumming his cello like a blues guitar, John Lee Hooker-style. When he reverts to playing arco, his gritty double timing and resonating strings find echoes in Harmon's foot taping, boogie-woogie technique and elongated blue notes.
More consistent, but rather hypothermic, THE MOUSE THAT ROARED was recorded four years before the duo disc at a cello festival concert. An opportunity for Turner to show off his striking technique, there's also the feeling at times that dazzling fellow cello zealot may have contributed to the flash and humorlessness he displays.
Certainly he's impressive enough on these seven improvisations to rouse the audience of middle fiddle fanciers to loud huzzahs on at least one occasion. Other times, though, no matter how hard he tries, the response resembles the sort of by-rote applause you find at classical recitals.
Maybe the restraint was caused by professional jealousy. On "Improv 6," for instance Turner is able to manipulate his strings so that he appears to be playing two instruments at once. Somehow later in the tune, he manages to transforms the cello into an Arabic flute or to at least approximate that tone. "Improv 3" finds him bowing and banging on the cello's body at the same time to produce something very close to literal Spanish guitar passages, which are then extended with four string strums. Meanwhile, the melody that appears two-thirds of the way through "Improv 4" sounds more like a rustic Klezmer air than something made up on the spot.
Still, there are times throughout the disc when his soloing seems to resemble one of those conventional classical virtuoso showpieces. The mechanics are fully on display intimidate or impress other performers in the audience.
All in all, both CDs seem most designed for cello zealots and Turner fans, who will no doubt rush out for them. Still, a drollop of levity on the solo session and a higher percentage of original material on the standards disc would have made both more palatable to all of us.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. I Fall in Love Too Easily 2. Solar 3. Rabid Poultry 4. Mourning 5. Roundtrip 6. Darn That Dream 7. I Want Jesus to Walk With Me 8. Beautiful Love 9. Forbidden Forest 10. Ground Zero 11. Blue In Green
Personnel: Matt Turner (cello); John Harmon (piano, organ)
Track Listing: 1. Improv 1 2. Improv 2 3. Improv 3 4. Improv 4 5. Improv 5 6. Improv 6 7. Improv 7
Personnel: Matt Turner (cello)