STEFAN KEUNE/JOHN RUSSELL

Frequency of Use
Nurnichtnur 102 12 31

Listening to FREQUNCY OF USE by British guitarist John Russell and German saxophonist Stefan Keune raises the question of just how tonally minimal reductionist improvisations can be and still reach listeners.

On the evidence of the almost-72 minutes of microtonal meandering from Russell’s acoustic guitar and Keune’s sopranino and alto saxophones, the answer, in this case, seems to be quiet a lot if strings are attached; a lot less so if singular reed tones dominate the output.

Both men have concentrated on this sort of intense chamber music for years. Co-founder of London’s MOPOMOSO concert series, the guitarist has been involved in interdisciplinary projects, as well as playing with such sympathetic, low-resolution improvisers as pianist Chris Burn and saxophonist John Butcher. The reedist has worked with similar thinkers such as guitarist Erhard Hirt and bassist Hans Schneider.

Unlike a similar session released a couple of years ago, where Keune expressed himself in a lexicon of flutter tonguing, reed biting, split tones, overblowing, aviary toots and elongated smears, his vocabulary appears to have shrunk to repetitive, slurred reed trills that last only a few seconds each. Russell, on the other hand, showcases a tool chest full of unique techniques, though it must be admitted that a powerful, resonating strum is his particular favorite.

“What”, the longest track at more than 16 minutes, point out these differences. Beginning with a sound that appears to be replicating Russell wiping his strings with furniture polish and then producing an extended pure tone like an oscillating sonic wave by rubbing on the newly abrasive surface, Keune responds with a whistling trilled squeak. As his chirps get louder and faster, the guitarist fingerpicks a line that could be the beginnings of a very primitive blues. Exhausting this route, he tries string plucking with a harpsichord-like resonance and slurred fingering that recalls a British folk ballad interlude. Miniscule tugs on the string tree above the nut, contrasted with hand slides across the strings bring out some smeared nasal honks and more squeals from the saxophonist.

On “Anyway”, the plectrumist almost produces a standard tune, as his strumming of expansive portamento notes seems to be trying to form itself into a melody. Alternately quicker or leisurely, Russell picks away with a bluesy intensity without creating anything even vaguely resembling the blues.

Then there’s “Who”, which showcases Russell’s flailing power as he uses his favorite technique of strumming all over the neck and body without often coming close to the f-holes. Here sympathetic vibrations that create a more comprehensive tone arise from his wrenching string tugs. Meanwhile Keune’s timbres may be higher-pitched and almost ear splitting, but they also sound somewhat familiar, as if they had already been expressed by earlier free improvisers.

Elsewhere, the reedist produce bird-like trills, reed kisses, irregular vibrations and even pinched tones plus duck quacks. But this versatility doesn’t get aired often enough. Contrast the consistent muffled piglet squeals that appear on nearly every track with the acoustic guitarist’s improvisations. Russell explores the sides of his axe and its fretboard, energetically tugging, jerking and yanking his string set from the front and producing reverberations from the top of the neck and beneath the bridge.

Fanatical improv followers may give the CD higher marks and it certainly will interest admirers of either player. But the best advice for the reedman would seem that he should introduce new extended techniques, as he has tried to do in the past. Perhaps Keune and Russell together should try recording with another musician or two to see what shakes loose.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Where 2. When 3. Why 4. How 5.What 6. Who 7. Anyway 8. How much 9. Just that 10. Oops

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