Stéphane Rives

Fibres
(Potlatch)

Masahiko Okura
Solo
(Hibari Music)

by Ken Waxman

February 23, 2004

When it comes to the farthest reaches of improvised music, solo saxophone sessions are no longer a novelty.

Pioneers such as American Anthony Braxton and John Butcher and Evan Parker, from Great Britain have furrowed the ground to such an extent that young saxists attempting a singular effort can only hope to attain some sort of attention rather than major breakthroughs. Both French soprano saxophonist Stéphane Rives and Japanese alto saxophonist Masahiko Okura acquit themselves admirably here. However in retrospect SOLO may draw more adherents than FIBRES.

With his admixture of microtones and vibrating air, Rives, whose work posits a unique acoustic-concrète interface, definitely creates the more original output on the seven selections on his disc. But with the total program running to a nearly exhausting more than 59 minutes, the little more than 29 minutes on Okura’s single track become more palatable. Furthermore since SOLO isn’t exclusively reductionist and offers rhythmic variety when the saxman literally blows into a bass tube to spell his reed work, the careful listener experiences more emotions than mute admiration.

Not that there isn’t much to admire from Rives, a member of Parisian Improvisers Collective Ivraie, who has adapted the influences of Butcher, Parker and fellow Frenchman Michel Doneda to produce grainy and textural, nearly imperceptible sounds here.

His extended showpiece unrolls on the more-than-18-minute “Larsen et le roseau #2”. Le roseau is reed, but the identity of Larsen is open to conjuncture. Starting with a shrill, relentless single pitch, Rives soon introduces rippling harmonics at the very top of the saxophone’s range. One-third of the way through his gyrating overtones become more rounded and less strident, but they’re soon succeeded by muted resonation within the body tube that become more muted. Eventually the single tone expands, picking up harmonic overtones along the way, hardens and then dissolves into single note explorations. As he blows harder, a secondary growl arises then becomes a squealing whistle until it too fades. “Ébranlement #2” — loose translation: shaking — which follows this, is almost three minutes of strained, high energy pitches that take on aviary-like qualities and seem to be played without the saxman touching the keys.

On other tracks such as the more than 13-minute “Granulations #1” — loose translation: grainy — there’s no doubt that Rives is dealing with the parameters of what is after all, a metal tube. Pure air forced through the shaft creates barely heard chirruped froth and reedy whistles. Moving into false registers, ghost notes irregularly vibrate from the gooseneck producing bubbling fish tank or wind tunnel sounds, rattling at their most metallic.

There’s no denying Rives’ skills that often extend circular breathing to boundaries past where others such as Parker have traveled, or how his triple tonguing strain into murmuring multiphonics. Sibilant, his vibrations, overtones and squeals can reference panting and flushing noises, the burrowing of small animals and almost hollow seashell echoes. But if 10 or 15 minutes could have been lobbed off the session, there still would have been enough here to digest and admire.

Okura’s CDR, on the other hand, could have been slightly lengthier, without destroying his mood. However since it’s a live session, perhaps the time was all he — or the organizers — allotted. Strangely enough Okura’s background is in techno-noise and jazz-rock as much as understated On-kyo sounds. He has played frequently with locals such as turntablist/guitarist Otomo Yoshihide and guitarist Taku Sugimoto as well as electric post-rockers like American guitarists Jim O’Rourke.

On SOLO, he too deals with silences, but they exist in between the low tones he forces from his alto. Beginning with deep-throated trills proclaimed at an andante pace, the stillness allows you to hear key flapping and resonant breaths. Before turning to tongue slaps, key pops and finger-flicking key percussion his single notes constitute themselves into musical phrases. Soon a repertory of different key pops and what may be drumming on the side of the sax’s body tube gets to a point where the reports start to resemble the beats from a small djembe or bata drum.

With a pronounced irregular vibrato Okura spits more billowing timbres into the sax’s gooseneck, then after audibly clearing his throat and respiring more air into his mouth, pushes it out, at this point transforming the key-less plastic bass tube into a faux didjeridoo. As the tones buzz, then dissolve into the silence, the billowing textures take on a life of their own and vary as they follow the in and out motion of his inhaling and exhaling. Circular breathing at this point — after pulling varied tones from the pipe — Okura concludes with a wheezy, accented tone and the odd puppy-like yelp.

To a greater or lesser degree, both these extensions of the saxophone canon can be appreciated — both by reed followers and by others interested in futuristic improv.