Tempted to Smile
Spool SZ-SPL120-CD

Rivers and Tides
Winter & Winter 910 092-2

Of all the musicians with a non-jazz background who have embraced improv over the past few years, British-born, California-based guitarist/composer Fred Frith seems to have brought the most to the table by using freer impulses to amplify his own versatility.

During his 20-odd years in the United States he’s forged alliances with musicians as different as East Coast saxophonist John Zorn and West Cost kotoist Miya Masaoka. A founding member of Henry Cow, Britain’s original Art Rock, band, he keeps his rock chops up playing with the likes of Canadian guitarist René Lussier, while his ongoing European connections have included compositions for film, theatre and dance.

RIVERS AND TIDES, the soundtrack for Thomas Riedelsheimer's film of the same name, is a definite chamber work written by Frith and performed by him plus a German trio of woodwinds, acoustic bass and percussion. TEMPTED TO SMILE on the other hand, is out-and-out free improv, recorded in Berkeley, Calif. by Frith on guitar, American violinist/guitarist Jonathan Segel and French bassist Joëlle Léandre, who was then teaching at California’s Mills College along with Frith. Léandre, whose talents as a contemporary composition interpreter were well established in the so-called serious music world before she turned to improv has followed a similar path to Frith’s, playing with everyone from American trombonist George Lewis to Portuguese violinist Carlos Zingaro.

Parenthetically, you wonder if during her apprentice years at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris, Léandre ever imagined that one day she would share a recording date with two rock-identified guitarists: Frith, and Segel, whose history includes Camper Van Beethoven and Sparklehorse.

Speaking of the conservatory, it appears that Frith’s associates on the Riedelsheimer project — Wolfgang Stryi on soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, bassist Karoline Höfler and percussionist Bernd Settelmeyer — are New musicians rather than improvisers. Coupled with the actualities of running and bubbling water from the documentary, the three interpret Frith’s score, which he himself tints with additional samples and instrumental work on guitar, violin, piano, berimbao and one-string Afro-Brazilian bow.

Elongated rubbed abrasions and droning reverberations appear from the manipulations of the berimbao’s thin string with a blunt object, with that buzz amplified by the basket shaker or caxi. Frith also adds bird-like violin string chirping, stately piano chords and what sounds like tiny percussion instruments rolled along the floor. In contrast, the others often sound as if they’re engaged in playing as a baroque chamber trio, creating a Triumph of the Will-like march or, with Frith’s string band input, a cheerful, dancing czarda. It’s a rare juxtaposition of First World and Third World sounds.

“VII” provides a pointilistic climax for the CD and soundtrack, as flowing liquid timbres combine with reed shrills, expanded cymbal shimmers and low-pitched pedal point bass notes. Frith elaborates some folksy, Mountain music-style guitar picking, and what sounds like quivering accordion tones and sampled drones twitters that complement woodwind key pops and an almost-burlesque of Impressionistic keyboard literature. With berimbao scratches mounting in volume, water torrent resonance makes its appearance as well.

Deep in the heart of improv, the timbres, tones and pitches of the other CD aren’t as easily attached to sound sources. Considering Frith is described as playing “etc.” as well as guitar, there’s the suspicion that samples and maybe even the berimbao make an appearance. On “The Glass of Absinthe” for instance, it appears that both Frith and Segel are on guitars, with the results including extended slackening of the strings in a Hawaiian manner coupled with bottleneck suggestions from the other gitbox, making the ethnic connections stronger. Here and elsewhere there are crashes and tugs on the six-strings as well as thumps from the four strings of the bull fiddle.

“The Palace at 4 am” highlights string-induced mosquito-like buzzing and flailing, chords from the guitar, splayed, Middle-Eastern tonal glissandos from the fiddle, and a solid continuum from the bass. Between the pitch sliding from all instruments, Frith assembles a Sandy Bull-like chromatic guitar fantasia.

Perhaps taking advantage of what’s on hand, “La Valise” centres on a dialogue in French between Léandre and probably Frith, as a speedy collection of miniscule EuroImprov moves come to the fore. Expanding the dense, percussive rhythms —from the top of a suitcase perhaps — the bassist seems to move from arco slashes to what sound like the reverberations of sticks placed horizontally between her strings. Segel squeaks out timbres and emphasizes pitches from the area near his tuning pegs, while Frith bangs the wooden surface as often as he plays the strings of his guitar.

Finally, the entire adventure is wrapped up with the appropriately titled “Housecleaning at the Beginning of the New Year” — although the session was recorded in November. The caxi shakes and scrapes, a thwacking whip sound is heard, bells ring, bowls vibrate, a pennywhistle tootles, ping-pong balls ricochet and it appears as if Léandre is dragging her bass peg along the floor. As Frith appears to be creating new timbres by crumbling tissue paper, Segel shrills elevated tones from his violin.

Composition or improvisation — take your pick, Frith et. al are able to do both with convincing precision.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Rivers: 1. Part I 2. Part II 3. Part III 4. Part IV 5. Part V 6. Part VI 7. Part VII 8. Part VIII

Personnel: Rivers: Wolfgang Stryi (soprano saxophone, bass clarinet); Fred Frith (guitar, samples, violin, piano, berimbao); Karoline Höfler (bass); Bernd Settelmeyer (percussion)

Track Listing: 1. From Ice to Steam 2. Portrait of a Boy 3. Sideshow 4. The Glass of Absinthe 5. Smell My Halo 6. The Palace at 4 am 7. Hey Sonny 8. La Valise 9. Goodbye Pop 10. Tempted To Smile 11. Housecleaning at the Beginning of the New Year

Personnel: Jonathan Segel (violin and guitar); Fred Frith (guitar); Joëlle Léandre (bass)