STEFAN KEUNE/JOHN RUSSELL

Excerpts & Offerings
Acta 14

Once thought of a particularly British affectation, improvisations of subdued tones and tiny gestures has, like bog-trotting brogues and tweed tailoring, been adopted by players on the Continent and North America. Some, especially in Germany and Austria have become the equivalent of American businessmen who refuse to wear anything but Saville Row suits. More English than the English, the sounds they produce are so miniscule and restrained that they’re nearly inaudible.

Luckily sopranino and alto saxophonist Stefan Keune isn’t like that; you can still hear all the sonorities of his improvisations throughout this more than 57-minute session. Born in Oberhausen, Germany in 1965 Keune is comfortable with the idiom because he has been involved with almost nothing else since his early twenties. He is closely associated with other German improv practitioners such as synthesizer player Thomas Lehn, violinist Gunda Gottschalk and guitarist Erhard Hirt. But at the same time he has also had a long relationship with his partner here, British guitarist John Russell as well as other U.K. experimenters like drummer Roger Turner, saxophonist John Butcher and violinist Phil Durrant.

Eleven years older, the guitarist also became interested in BritImprov early and recorded his first free music before Keune was 10. A longtime colleague of both Butcher and Durrant, not to mention Turner and saxophonist Evan Parker, over the years he has colluded with other creative types in poetry, composition, theatre and performance art. Not that there’s any touch of theatricality in these seven performances recorded in real time in Liverpool and London. There may be poetry here, but it’s very much of the sound poetry function. Additionally, despite the age and nationality difference, the guitarist and saxophonist fit very well together.

That’s because the two musicians came together in the two designed locations for a specific period of time and relied on their own experience and knowledge of the other’s reactions to produce this work. With titles described as “cryptic allusions to events that took place ...”, the tuns coalesce into one restrained whole, with a few seconds pause among them. Apparently sticking more-or-less to the sopranino, the saxophonist limits himself to an in-this-case expected vocabulary of flutter tonguing, reed biting, split tones, overblowing, aviary toots and elongated smears. Very rarely does he rouse himself to push out an excited flurry of notes and when that happens, the moment quickly passes.

Also seemingly limiting himself to the exterior edges of the guitar, prudently sounding individual and massed strings, plus scratches on the guitar’s bridge and neck, Russell makes it his business to introduce countervailing motifs and asides. Although he does produce some pointed banjo-like tones, at times it’s hard to distinguish the string rasps from Keune’s slap tonguing.

Despite being related to the circumstances of the moment, free improvisation like this has now been established and has a history of pitches and indication that’s easily older than the saxophonist. So while you can be impressed with the duo’s performance and quick reflexes here, there’s no indication that either singly or together they’re venturing where no one has ever been before.

Full time free improv fanciers will probably be most impressed by this meeting of minds and instruments and many will marvel at their musical cohesion. But unlike some other discs, while this CD may serve up EXCERPTS & OFFERINGS, it doesn’t create the hair-standing-on-its-end thrill of uncharted musical investigation.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Big George 2. Norma and Sharon 3. Don’t do it again 4.305 5.Tom and Irina 6.Just say cheese 7.Late arrivals

Personnel: Stefan Keune (sopranino and alto saxophones); John Russell (guitar)