Pasta Variations
SOFA 509

Apples of Gomorrah
GROB 429

The glue — or maybe it’s the spittle — that holds these two sessions together is the oral work of British performer Phil Minton. One hesitates to call him a singer since his vocal tones seem to range from improvising instrumental emulation to aural recapitulation of all the intonation related to the Seven Ages of Man. And all that is mixed with cartoon character voices, operatic snatches and animal calls.

While individually cogent, each CD is distinct. On PASTA VARIATIONS, Minton mixes it up with the one British — Pat Thomas on keyboards and electronics — and five Norwegian members of No Spaghetti Edition, the improv group with a constantly shifting line-up. APPLES OF GOMORRAH, on the other hand, is a duo session, with a longtime associate, soprano and tenor saxophonist John Butcher. Each disc is impressive in its own way.

Constantly experimenting, Minton was involved with Bob Ostertag’s electronic piece, SAY NO MORE, as long ago as 1983, so facing Thomas’ instrumental advances, plus oddball instruments like Håkon Kornstad’s fluteonet and Frode Haltli’s accordion causes no terror. Or if it does his vocal forays don’t sound any different than when he’s improvising with more conventional instruments. The key thing here is that he adapts to his new partners and they to him.

For instance, on the more than 14 minute “PVD”, Thomas’ mellotron-like sound mixes with elongated “ahs” and “oohs” from Minton and fluteonet whistles from Kornstad, who also leads his own modern mainstream trio. Matching guttural mumbles and sighs that could emanate as easily from an inmate of Bedlam as a cartoon pirate are the woodblock and cymbal caresses from drummer Ingar Zach, who has duetted with British guitarist Derek Bailey among others. Thus, Minton turns into a rhythm singer. But, trouble is, as the accordion vamps and tenor saxophone tones speed up, so must Minton and soon he’s almost yodeling in triple time. Bassist Tonny Kluften, who with guitarist Ivar Grydeland has recorded with British drummer Tony Oxley, holds onto the rhythm, allowing the vocalist to exhibit what could be a wordless counter tenor madrigal interacting with bird-like saxophone trills and buzzing electronic static. Soon, as on some other tracks, Minton’s yowling is almost buried beneath accordion tremolos and fulsome guitar licks.

Earlier, the saxophonist has added some tongue slaps and key pops to his improvisations to match Minton clamor to clamor, while Haltli, whose experience encompasses Norwegian folk and classical music, turns his expressiveness into a key pressing frenzy. As for Thomas, his sudden electronic explosions and car crash stops find modernistic keyboard runs turning to repeated, rubato fingering. At times, his piano sounds almost boppish when meeting Minton’s quacking duck sounds head on.

“PVE”, the disc’s 17½-minute tour de force, finds all hands on deck and heading in different directions. Mechanical clicks flow out of Thomas’ machines, Kornstad circular breathes out some split-tone shrills, Kluften plucks his bass loudly, and Zach alternates his accents from hi hat to bass drum pedal. Meanwhile Minton’s liturgical-style chanting soon turns to frenzied, high-pitched, near screams and Haltli uses tremolos to coat the process in an harmonic batter, while only a single percussion tone can be heard.

The saxophonist soon begins flutter tonguing, the percussionist worries the rims and sides of his drums and Grydeland scratches out tiny patterns on his strings. Finally, the squeezebox’s bent notes reconfigure themselves into a folkish melody amplified by the slurp of electronics and whistling reeds. Swelling to a crescendo the release is a coda of deflating electronic sounds and Alzheimer-like mumbling from Minton.

Nearly three years earlier, Minton and Butcher, who had been associated since earlier in the decade, and who toured in a quartet filled out by pianist Veryan Weston and percussionist Roger Turner, went into a London studio and turned out 17 tunes in less than 44½ minutes. Intentionally or not, the sacramental suggestions of the other disc are resurrected here with Minton’s vocal contortions alluding to Ashkenazi davening, the muezzin’s calls to prayer and Georgian chants.

Considering that many more of the sounds take place more in his lips and mouth than vocal chords, some references may be more obtuse than others. Also noteworthy as the CD evolves, is how the sounds and tones of the improvising voice and improvising horns begin to resemble one another. On “Common cleavers”, for instance, Minton’s speedy glossolalia is virtually indistinguishable from Butcher’s soprano reed biting, with the later’s whiplash notes seemingly driving the vocalist to aural orgasm. “Wormleaf”, however, finds Minton puffing out basso notes of pure air, while it sounds like Butcher is inflating a balloon with his reed. Soon as the voice bounces from high to low tones, interspersed with growls, the sax delivery becomes all lips and tongue and spit.

Sometimes, as when Minton appears to be retching or producing what in other circumstances would be an infant’s cries or the sound of an indisposed feline, his delivery can be a little hard to take. But that’s why Butcher is onboard. Since the ear will accept extended instrumental techniques more readily than speaking in tongues, the listener can accept his atonality more readily than Minton’s Grand Guignol-like sounds. At those times the sacramental sounds reassert themselves as well. All you have to do is remind yourself that qualification for Christian sainthood in early days usually involved some sort of gruesome torture and death. Think of Minton’s creations as the soundtrack of those endeavors.

At the same time, if you can pull away from the vocal sounds — easier for some than others — you can note that Butcher can twist key pops and squeaks into a melody and extend multiphonics to such an extent that he can sound the overtones of two or three notes while pressing only one key. Like an experienced soul singer such as Wilson Pickett, who can produce several notes from one falsetto cry, Minton’s ghostly screams are capable of the same methodology. During “Itchgrass”, an oratorio of low-grade crying, he goes so deep into his chest and throat that the echoing vocal overtones make perfect counterpoint to Butcher’s honks, hums and tongue slaps.

If your idea of singers’ improvising is hearing someone scat in the middle of “Route 66” or draw out the syllables on “My Funny Valentine” then run away from these discs. But if you want to hear how a voice can range between operatic soaring and loony- bin mumbles while holding its own with top instrumentalists, then seek them out. Even if you’ve never experienced Minton’s bastard art before, you may surprise yourself by becoming an enthusiast.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. PVA 2. PVB 3. PVC 4. PVD 5. PVE

Personnel: Håkon Kornstad (tenor saxophone, fluteonet); Frode Haltli (accordion); Pat Thomas (keyboards, electronics); Ivar Grydeland (guitar); Tonny Kluften (bass); Ingar Zach (percussion); Phil Minton (voice)

Track Listing: 1. Dead men’s Bells 2. Common Cleavers 3. Sprangletop 4. Joyweed 5.

Caper Spurge 6. Wormleaf 7. Itchgrass 8. Sticky Willie 9. Nodding thistle 10. Fairy Cheeses 11. Herb Twopence 12. Sauce Alone 13. Nodding spurge 14. Cuckoo’s Stockings 15. Bachelor’s Buttons 16. Beggar’s Lice 17. Loosestrife

Personnel: John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophone); Phil Minton (voice)