ALEX WARD/JOHN BISSET

Crypt
2:13 CD 016

ERNETO DIAZ-INFANTE/CHRIS FORSYTH
as is stated … before known)
Evolving Ear/Pax Recording EE07/PR90263

Put aside any ideas you may have about these duo guitar discs being another installment in the Great Guitars series or cozy adult radio fodder. Even though three out of the four guitars plucked here are acoustic and a good portion of the tunes hover around the three-minute mark, these aren’t your fathers’ guitar duos.

In truth, both discs have a slightly more subversive bent than you find in mainstream, Herb Ellis-Joe Pass duets, countrypolitan Chet Atkins-Les Paul meetings or Al DiMeola-John McLaughlin speed fests. Both duos — Britons John Bisset and Alex Ward, and Americans Ernest Diaz-Infante and electric guitarist Chris Forsyth — are trying to reach those sounds between genres, referencing jazz, New music and free improv in the former case and noise, microtonalism, free improv and electro-acousticism in the other.

Surprisingly, considering the sources, the linkage between the across-the-ocean duos arises from the amount of flat-picking and strumming here. Echoes of folk music teams like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn or John Fahey and Leo Kottke appear throughout. In fact, you might call the results avant folk.

A free music experimenter working with the likes of percussionist Burkhard Beins and the London Improvisers Orchestra, Bisset recorded CRYPT in a church located in Ward’s hometown of Grantham, Linconshire. Additionally, although he has recorded on guitar elsewhere, Ward is better known as a clarinetist in sessions with guitarist Derek Bailey and bassist Simon H. Fell.

Recorded in Forsyth’s hometown of Brooklyn, the other CD links that self-taught electric guitarist and member of the electroacoustic trio PSI, with San Francisco visitor and experimental music cheerleader Diaz-Infante, whose East Coast associates include pianist Dan Dechellis and drummer Jeff Arnal who have also played with Forsyth. CRYPT’s quirky song titles, incidentally, come from cribbage, a card game favored by Ward’s relatives. AS IS STATED … BEFORE KNOWN’s titles are as enigmatic as some of the playing here.

To get an idea what both duos are doing, compare “Some weeks of close scrutiny”, Forsyth and Diaz-Infante’s 9½-minute tour-de-force, with just about anything on the other CD. A dramatic, atmospheric instant composition, “Some weeks. . .” features the two strumming in unison on their bass strings until that’s succeeded by rumbling amplifier static on one side and the sound of guitar wood being hit with the heel of a hand on the other. As Diaz-Infante maintains an unvarying four-note pattern, Forsyth introduces irregular sine wave oscillations that could as easily come from a laptop or synthesizer. Soon the pulsation becomes so loud that that it threatens to drown out the guitar fills. Buzzing as if it is the audio of a malfunctioning TV set, the oscillations move into the foreground until the guitar chords become faint shadows and are finally subsumed.

Contrast that with Bisset and Ward’s “Muggins”, that’s replete with slurred fingering and reverberating bluesy runs. At one point one guitarist flat picks on the axe’s highest parts near the neck, then rapidly slides down to a more moderate tone, as the other offers some raggy Blind Blake-like finger picking.

Not that the Americans are uninfluenced by unadorned roots techniques either. As they’re passing chords back and forth on tunes like “How little observed … half a mile distant” and “This same afternoon” the results recall the sort of steady rolling flat picking that usually accompanies rambling folk songs. Of course the mood is shattered for nanoseconds by sharpened objects pressed against the strings. “One afternoon last year” references harsh, bottleneck styling in a sharp, short burst of atonal steel string blues picking. Imagine Elmore James in outer space.

Then there’s “Tomorrow”, where the doubled-gaited, authoritative unison strumming from the two suggest the open chord style of countryrockers the Everly Brothers. Further on, though, the ringing, foot-tapping beat gives way to secondary Bronx cheer decorations, humming effects pedal distortions and pulsating delay effects.

That’s the unstated challenge implicit in Forsyth and Diaz-Infante’s CD: trying to affect a mid-path between six string and non-guitar sounds. When concordance is made among machine-like rumbles, the cavernous reverb and near silent microtonalism that make up part of their performance, and adroit picking and strumming, the listener can set aside the discordant experimentation elsewhere.

With two acoustic axes, Bisset and Ward’s don’t have amplification to manipulate. But they do quite well without it. Placing themselves in the non-hierarchical centre of BritImprov, they come up with mitosis-like creations as on “Two for his Heels” where near equivalent sounds finally open up for flamenco-style strumming, country music flat picking and then the hint of bent blues notes.

Other times, as on “Pairs Royal”, it appears as if entire passages are being played on the tiny space underneath the bridge. Meanwhile objects are being rolled along and against the strings as well as flailing thumb plucks, wood beatings and knife-like pinpointed notes.

Applying World Wrestling Federation grapples to certain strings so they can resonate with abandon, doesn’t satisfy the two. Elsewhere they’re likely to diverge from that patch to sound out delicate, melodic chromatic lines. On a piece like “Fifteen six” one will strum while the other snaps out spiky flat picking”, while on “Fifteen four” one will confine himself to finger picking on the lower strings while the other goes into slurred fingering, sounding out arpeggio after arpeggio.

CRYPT reaches its climax on the eight-minute final track, where following the recitation of a T.S. Elliot text, floating, chiming phrases pass from one to another. A double quick counterline suggests “Flight of the Bumble Bee”; another slurred passage is reminiscent of the English folk dance tradition. Following an ensuing series of pauses and strums, then zither-like picking on higher-pitched strings, the two exit in a crescendo of swirling unison chording.

Two guitar duos, two separate, if equally legitimate, approaches.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Flush 2. Pairs 3. Two for his Heels 4. Pairs Royal 5. The Crib 6. Fifteen two 7. Muggins 8. Fifteen four 9. Fifteen six 10. One for his nob

Personnel: Alex Ward, John Bisset (acoustic guitars)

Track Listing: 1. The sun is shining 2. How little observed… half a mile distant 3. Tomorrow 4. Some years since (the moon, supposing it to be inhabited) 5. One afternoon last year 6. I once carried ... from time to time 7. This same afternoon 8. On morning five years ago (touched my trembling eras) 9. Some weeks of close scrutiny 10. Six minutes last fall 11. Six years

Personnel: Ernest Diaz-Infante (acoustic guitar); Chris Forsyth (electric guitar