No Day Rising
Spool Line SPL-121

Ocean of Earth
Barking Hoop BY-BKH007

Recording studios may have been frequented as often as classrooms during the time French bassist Joëlle Léandre spent as a visiting professor at Oakland, Calif.’s Mills College between September and December 2002. These CDs are just two of the many sessions the peripatetic bassist was involved with during that time.

Not that this reflects opportunism or any lowering of Léandre’s high musical standards however. As a European improviser she welcomed the chance to play with as many non-Europeans as possible. Plus, as a true improviser committed to creativity of the moment, it wasn’t as if studio work took up oodles of time, even if, as in the case of OCEAN OF EARTH, she was away from her California base.

Unlike rock bands which spend weeks, months, and — in the case of audio procrastinators like Boston — years in the studio, improvisers often find that an intensive day is often enough time to create an exceptional CD. Unlike rockers as well, they’re sure enough of their creativity and understand their instruments well enough to do this.

Listening to both albums, recorded in October 2002 on subsequent days on opposite American coasts, doesn’t give you any sense of hasty preparation or non-musical tension. What you hear instead is five musicians performing at the height of their powers — though you may wonder if the bassist has some particular curative for jet lag.

Making NO DAY RISING even more of an international affair, neither of Léandre’s partners is American. Brett Larner, who plays three different kotos here is a transplanted Canadian now in San Leandro, Calif. Someone who spent years in Tokyo studying koto with master Kazue Sawai, Larner, is also involved with electroacoustic improvisations. He has played with composer Anthony Braxton, guitarist Taku Sugimoto and with no imput mixing board stylist Toshimaru Nakamura. Another member of the American/Japanese experimental scene is the CD’s third participant. Guitarist and daxophone player Kazuhisa Uchihashi a former member of Ground Zero, who more recently was in the band R.U.B. with American saxist Ned Rothenberg.

Larner, who reveals that the CD was put together in the 12 hours following Uchihashi’s solo performance at Mills, just after Léandre returned from the East Coast, calls it “a peculiar set of short pieces, almost a pop album”. American Idol fans and improv followers will likely disagree.

Instead what’s here are 13 mid-length pieces ranging from less 90 seconds to more than seven minutes, titled for the time of day at which they were recorded, and dedicated to creating unexpected sounds. Interestingly enough, the daxophone, which when bowed, scraped, tapped or otherwise vibrated can produce a variety of sounds from falsetto to basso is actually used sparingly. It’s the traditional koto, bass and guitar which are most put to use.

Thus on a piece like “11:42 p.m.”, you figure the intermittent beeps probably come from prepared bass koto, the high pitched Appalachian-style fiddling from the top range of the bass strings, and undercurrent of strumming from the guitar — or do they? In the same way it’s pretty clear that the arching snorts, falsetto cries and dog yowls on “11:01 p.m.” are coming from the dax. But the later dialogue that resembles a wolf howling at the moon meeting a burrowing anteater, is that Uchihashi’s doing, Léandre’s or Larner’s?

On the other hand, cross-cultural and musical asides resonate on a piece like “2:42 a.m.” Here among a collection of pauses and silences, the guitarist seems to reverberating fireside cowboy tune chords and the bassist roughly punishing and scraping her strings, as the bass koto provides a dramatic continuum on the bottom.

Or take “9:15 p.m.”, also the longest track. Beginning with definitely focused arco strokes from the bass that dissolve into bow-tip squeaks, currents resembling electronic impulses hang in the air. Soon, after resonating metal-against-metal scrapes and guitar strumming thumps further muddy the sound, a sudden pacific interlude arises as if bamboo flute tones had leaked into the soundstage. With Uchihashi turning to speedy flat-picking that recreates the tone of a National steel guitar, Larner appears to counter with vibes-like pings from the koto, using the tsume or ivory plectra as mallets.

Other timbres seemingly replicated are as unrelated as bass flute tones, electronic organ crescendos, waterlogged cries, bottleneck guitar runs and ghostly harp glissandos. So describing the music as either Oriental, Occidental, North American, European, Canadian, American, French or even acoustic or electronic seems reductive. Some of it is staccato, some legato. Some involves many notes bunched into a statement, other parts concentrate on the spidery manifestation of a single note.

Keeping you guessing, it illustrates musical rule bending without fear or let down, which is what masterful sustained experimentation should exhibit.

This is even more apparent on OCEAN OF EARTH. Recorded the day before in New Jersey, these 20, more expressively titled tracks are the result of a first-ever musical meeting between Léandre and two Americans, cellist Tomas Ulrich and percussionist Kevin Norton.

Someone who has played in different Braxton ensembles for nearly a decade, Norton has also involved himself in many forms of improv, working with players as different as guitarist James Emery, trombonist Steve Swell and saxist Alfred Harth. Featured on three of Norton’s earlier CDs, Ulrich has also performed with contrasting stylists such as tenormen Joe Lovano and Ivo Perelman, not to mention Braxton and bassist Dominic Duval.

Unambiguously more percussive than the previous disc for obvious reasons, the CD isn’t weighted down with drum action however. Instead Norton’s hands are usually shaping elongated and glinting vibraphone or marimba chords or extracting offbeat rhythmic pulses from what is described as “homemade and store-bought percussion”.

On “Trio for the end of time” he jockeys up and down the metal bars as the bassist saws away effervescently and the cellist double-stops to produce further decoration. When Ulrich’s tone turns more discordant and shrill, and Léandre somehow sound as if she’s broom sweeping with her bull fiddle, Norton lets loose with a protuberance of cymbal whaps then turns his bars into bells and finally back to the vibes. Then the two string players combine for arco swoops.

Legit-sounding unison bowed bass and cello also makes its appearance on “Opposite action”, but expressing himself on toms and snares the drummer’s time is closer to what many would hear as jazz. As the cellist and bassist move up the scale to involve themselves in an Impressionistic fantasia of repeated grace notes and glissandos, Norton varies the tempo to such an extent that they decelerate into low gear, surrounding his final, near military drum tattoo with eddying, squeaking slides.

There are even times as on “Goodbye Blues” when Norton’s ringing vibe timbres and Léandre’s steady pulse could have come from the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Milt Jackson and Percy Heath respectively, so straightforward do they sound. Here as elsewhere, though, Norton appears to favor a multi-mallet Gary Burton approach over Jackson’s concentrated single stick approach. And it’s doubtful that Heath ever murmured pseudo-operatic gibberish and definitely, if not deliberately obscure French syllables while (wo)manhandling the bass as Léandre does on “Saltimbanques/Acrobats”.

With the repertoire of bent notes, extended techniques, tugs, sweeps, shakes, rasps and glisses — not to mention piercing shrills from Acme slide and non-Acme whistles — the textures and tones here are extended even further than on the California-recorded session. And surprises abound.

Thus something like “Fairport confusion blues” doesn’t pay homage to the British folk-ballad group of the 1970s, but with powerful cello-plucks resembles the visceral folk-blues that Julius Hemphill often created. Unison pizzicato strings and a steady shuffle beat from the drums would have been familiar to Hemphill, but even he may have wondered which object Norton is striking besides drum rims and wooden blocks to produce what could be the sound of a slinky working its way down the stairs. Then there’s “Edye”, where, without electronic augmentation, the strings manage to replicate a woodwind choir.

Elsewhere arco strings rasp like angry birds, Old-Timey string band suggestions vie for space with Impressionistic chamber trio output as vibes sound like rolling logs and marimbas like a tolling clock.

By the time the clock actually tolls for this session you’re convinced that as long as the mood and pulsation are aligned with the proper participants, there’s no questioning the musical worth of one-off meetings like these.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: No: 1. 5:15 p.m. 2. 5:48 p.m. 3. 6:48 p.m. 4. 8:03 p.m. 5. 9:15 p.m. 6. 11:01 p.m. 7. 11:42 p.m. 8. 1:02 a.m. 9. 2:00 a.m. 10. 2:42 a.m. 11. 4:04 a.m. 12. 5:09 a.m. 13. 5:31 a.m.

Personnel: No: Kazuhisa Uchihashi (electric guitar, daxophone); Joëlle Léandre (bass); Brett Larner (koto, bass koto, prepared bass koto)

Track Listing: Ocean: 1. Océan de terre/Ocean of earth 2. Nous de nous 3. Saltimbanques/Acrobats 4. Pour Guigou, Sophie et Leo 5. Inclusive radiance 6. Goodbye blues 7. Flying blind, seeing everything 8. Edye 9. Pour Eva B 10. A book of great worth and importance 11. Trio for the end of time 12. D Major 13. Opposite action 14. C minor 15. Mai se découvre... 16. Parallel text 17. Je ne vous ai jamais connu 18. Attainable syntactical destinations 19. Fairport confusion blues 20. L’adieu/The farewell

Personnel: Ocean: Tomas Ulrich (cello, voice, non-Acme whistle); Joëlle Léandre (bass, voice); Kevin Norton (drums, vibraphone, marimba, homemade and store-bought percussion (including Acme slide whistle)