Something Normal
DUNS Limited Edition double 010

Ever since Fred Guy turned from the banjo to the guitar in Duke Ellington’s orchestra about 1933, the possibilities for banjo in post Trad jazz have been severely limited, or to be truthful, non-existent. Guitarist Chuck Wayne did record a bop-banjo track in the early 1960s — you could look it up — but generally if a banjo appeared on a jazz date, so did the New Orleans repertoire.

However British guitarists John Adams — not to be confused with the American composers of the same name — and Philip Gibbs don’t miss an opportunity to flail away at the what is probably the only indigenous African-American instrument during this two- CD set of collaborations with woodwind player Paul Dunmall. Adams, who has been part of Dunmall’s working trio, also plays both acoustic and electric guitars and mandolin plus banjo here, while Gibbs, who has recorded duo, trio and quartet sessions with the reed man, solos on both type of guitars and ukulele as well as the banjo. Not to be outdone, Dunmall, best-known as one-quarter of the Mujician group, trots out his flute, bagpipes, soprano and swannee saxophone, preznophone and moxeno — whatever the last three might be — on his side of the equation.

Furthermore, you shouldn’t expect any Earl Scruggs-meets-Steve Lacy style tunes here, although there are times that sort of soprano saxophone and banjo operating in improv time concept comes into play. However over the course of 16 tracks, the three men in duos and trios attempt to come up with as many different playing combinations as can be imagined from this SUV load of instruments.

There are times when Gibbs and Adams playing together seem positively conventional, strumming away like Herb Ellis meets Barney Kessel or any other of the so-called Great Guitar meetings, following each other like squirrels chasing around a tree, and prodding Dunmall to moderate into mid-range his soprano tone. One another track the saxist produces some ethereal flute work, probably reminiscent of his stint with harpist Alice Coltrane, while a combination of guitar body pats and string extension allows the others to reference the sounds of sarods, tablas and other South Indian instruments. An exercise in cross-cultural approximation, it, like many of the other tracks, points out that instruments’ limitations are only what you make of them. Nevertheless another tune seems to be made up in equal portions of straightforward guitar strumming and an echoing slide whistle tone — maybe that’s the sound of the preznophone or the moxeno.

Shorter guitar interludes of two sorts appear among some of the extended improvs. Imagine the folksy tablature demanded during the more self-conscious phrase of the 1960s and 1970s British folk revival and you’ll get an idea of what goes down there, sort of Brownie & Sonny meets Davey Graham. Other pieces are awash with bluesy steel string pulls, bottleneck whines and a quasi-psychedelic wash effect straight out of what could have been the Yardbirds setlist. On some tracks one guitarist will take one role and the other glom onto another style. Considering that he played on Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s AIN’T THAT A BITCH LP back in 1976, these blues-based experiments probably don’t bother the saxophonist.

The best parts of the session, though, come when the players head down into serious improvisation. Sometimes sounding as if he’s blowing cross wise across his flute, Dunmall mostly concentrates on a soprano saxophone tone that ranges from a fire siren shriek to a more modulated, deeper multiphonics. Tongue slaps and reed biting at supersonic speeds also spurs the plectrumists to put aside their inner George Formbys or Jeff Becks. Instead one or both will concentrate on intervals, strumming, picking and exploring the strings below the bridge and in the guitar’s neck, produce hollow body percussion and the sounds of something that could be duct tape being stretched across the studio.

All in all, while an interesting session SOMETHING NORMAL (sic) may be too much of a good thing. With CDRs so economical to produce, excesses as well as essential music get preserved for posterity. Perhaps a better route would have been to create two single CDs — one with Dunmall and the two guitarists, the other of string duets.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc A: 1. Deprived of oxygen 2. Fens to the right, boilerman 3. Hey! He’s eating my teeth 4. Disturbing events 5. I’ll drink to that 6. Discussions with an astral being 7. Full moon creeper 8. Beautiful young lady

Disc B: 1. Come on in the seats are filthy 2. Psycho snuffling 3. The boyman who ate a whole sweet 4. Normal past, out future 5. True phenomenon 6. The ambrosia of kuppaswamy 7. Shiva's gift 8. The final wedge

Personnel: Paul Dunmall (soprano and swannee saxophone, flute, preznophone, moxeno, bagpipes); Philip Gibbs (acoustic, electric guitars, banjo, mandolin); John Adams (acoustic, electric guitars, banjo, ukulele)