Keep The Meter Running
9 Winds NWCD 0246

One of the most exciting parts of group improvisation for me is that sense of not quite being sure whether what you can hear is you or not,” declares veteran British bassist Tony Wren. And this exciting session, featuring Wren, New York-based guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil and Los Angeles’ drummer Stephen Flinn exhibits this in spades.

A first time meeting between the two string players, the startling sounds produced attest to the versatility of the trio members, not one of whom is satisfied with the conventional sounds usually created with his respective instrument. All through these series of duo and trios, it’s not only sometimes impossible to ascribe a certain sound to a certain musician, although you can attest with certainty that either no one or all three are really percussionists.

Consisting of 16 improvisations on a CD of less than 49 minutes duration, KEEP THE METER RUNNING resembles a Ramones record in its brevity, That is as long as you remember that Wren was established on the BritImprov scene before the punk-rockers even learned their three guitar chords. Early on the bassist was part of such 1970s groups as Chamberpot with violinist Phil Wachsmann, and more recently his playing partners have included British cellist Mark Wastell and Swedes, saxophonist Martin Küchen and drummer Raymond Strid.

Younger, though more hair follicle challenged than Wren, the guitarist and drummer build on this history, offering a mid-Atlantic fillip to the English fashion of subdued improv. A Left Coaster, Flinn has worked with tenor saxophonist Marcello Blanco; while Eisenbeil’s conspicuously unique approach to the six string has been recognized by musicians ranging from masters, such as pianist Cecil Taylor and drummer Milford Graves to contemporaries like trombonist Steve Swell and vibist Gregg Bendian.

You can note Flinn and Eisenbeil’s intimacy on the duo tunes where the guitarist alternates amp buzzes and string scrapes to match cymbal sounds being extended with a moistened finger or a violin bow. There’s even a point at the very end when Eisenbeil creates some Balkan-style, outer space melodies to meet Flinn’s wiggling percussion.

Elsewhere, the four-string and six-string partnerships either turns into a symphony of scrapes, leading to animal-like reverberating wails, or are used as an opportunity for one player to appropriate the percussion function with bow strikes against the strings, while the other — probably Wren — produces brief arco tones. The sole bass-percussion meeting appears to feature reverberating sticks carefully placed between his bass strings, before the bassist probes those same chords with fingers and palms. In response kit crashes follow a introduction that sounds as if the percussionist is wiping his equipment with a clean cloth. However, that tune also illuminates the set’s only weakness. Some of the pieces in the one-to-three minute range sound truncated, as if they could have gone further.

Happily, others get more space. On the more than 6½-minute “Soup Line”, for instance, percussion seems to consist of scraping miniature finger cymbals and banging on the front of the guitar strings. Somehow Wren contributes what appear to be bass guitar runs, while penny-whistle tones and wildfowl cackles arise elsewhere. The ending includes what could be the sound of a top spinning and/or the aural replication of miscellaneous mechanical devices let loose on the studio floor.

The rock maple neck and the very heavy strings of Eisenbeil’s electric serve him well on “Absolutely” as tones boomerang and ricochet as he scrapes and lacerates the playing surface. Flinn’s cymbals and bells seem to presage a toyshop explosion with all the playthings resounding every which way as they soar into the air, while Wren bows solidly throughout the proceedings. Between his banjo-like picking and Dobro reverberations, Eisenbeil, with the melody instrument, does hold on to some modicum of harmony. There are even times he manages to create strummed tunelets from among his improv sleight-of-hands.

At other points, the overtones that should result from each of the instruments are used for special effect as cymbals appear to rotate on the floor, typewriter keys are sampled, maracas appear to be shaken, and someone could be blowing into a Tibetan bowl. Plus the CD may have captured the musical sounds that arise when a bass is dragged across the floor.

A mini-essay in trans-Atlantic improv, this CD will probably further confuse the issue of which musician plays which sound. But the end result is worth the puzzlement.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Tenderloin 2. Dots ‘N’ Dashes 3. Absolutely 4. Wow 5. Soup Line 6. Expensive Flight 7. No stars in Dublin 8. Feverish 9. Flake 0 10. Mafia Wife 11. Navel ice 12. Extra Heat 13. Capitalize 14. Nite Cop 15. Belongs to JD 16. Houston St.

Personnel: Bruce Eisenbeil (electric and acoustic guitars); Tony Wren (bass); Stephen Flinn (drums, percussion)