The Mahout

Mopomoso solos 2002
Emanem 4100

Solo, duo and group improvisations are the connective strands that knit together these two British CDs. Both showcase contemporary improv from musicians young and old, though THE MAHOUT comes with a wildcard — New York-based pianist Borah Bergman.

Bergman, 77, who is older by far than any other participant — British saxophonist Lol Coxhill, most elderly of the seven other musicians is six years his junior — plays anything but than old age home jazz. As a matter of fact, the fire and intensity he brings to his two solos and three trios on THE MAHOUT almost overshadow the singular tinkering of most of the others. Individually, while each succeeds on his own terms, the pianist’s work still provides a dictionary definition of Energy Music.

Spurring on to greater heights George Haslam, 65, on baritone saxophone and tarogato and drummer Paul Hession, a callow youth of 48, Bergman makes the nearly 11-minute title track almost explode out of the box. With Bergman producing high frequency chording featuring supersonic runs, glissandos from both hands, Haslam smears out swirls and chirrups from both his horns, and Hession provides rough’n’ready bounces and triplets.

Hession, who has backed Free Jazz saxophonists like Charles Wharf and Mick Beck, and Haslam who has traded reed licks with the likes of Coxhill and Evan Parker are obviously up to the Bergman challenge. Yet Bergman, whose fantasias are often able to cow reed partners as powerful as Parker and Oliver Lake, not to mention drummers like Hamid Drake and Andrew Cyrille often has the upper hands here — and both of them are functioning like pistons throughout the disc. Breathing space is at a premium as the pianist works his way from top to bottom of the keyboard and scale at high velocity, with motifs and tremolos often fusing into a dense block of sound.

Almost as impressive is “Zircon”. But here Hession’s press rolls and flams, Bergman’s metronomic timekeeping and Haslam’s alternate renal snorts and double-tongued eastern tone suggests what Cecil Taylor, Sunny Murray would have sounded like if baritonist Hamiett Bliuett had joined them in a trio. Producing flutter tongued, individual tones from either instrument that ostensibly resemble a low-pitched fog horn and a high-pitched air raid siren, Haslam, who is as comfortable recording in mainstream settings, proves that his energy is unflagging. Bergman key clips and inscribes spinning, circular motions around the other two, though at points it appears that he’s mirroring the reed lines.

Solo, Bergman brings the same flash to those tracks, but tempers it with suggestions of jazz history. “Dusk” is an emotional ballad taken at medium tempo, which includes a melancholy tinge you would associate with the title. “Streams” finds runs doubled, tripled or quadruped. Emphasizing the vibrations of almost every key, he escapes equal temperament by appending a bit of inverted boogie woogie to the solo and ends with a ragtime tickler’s flourish.

Hession’s solo track involves compressed snare and cymbal work and vibrating undertones, while Haslam’s skirt gloom by amplifying the grainy qualities of the taragoto playing it in unison with the baritone’s pitch vibratos.

Hession has no counterpart on MOPOMOSO SOLOS 2002 — the odd concert name an abbreviation of Modernism, post-modernism, so what — maybe you have to be British to appreciate this. However Coxhill is on hand to display his reed prowess and Chris Burn on piano and percussion displays his keyboard language.

Coxhill’s solo is fully in the animal mode with bird-like squealing twitters and toots and what sounds like the chirps of mice chasing one another through his body tube. Add to this whistling pitch vibrations, slipslipping, altissimo trills and double tongued cries and smears and his piece is as distinctive a piece of BritImprov as Bergman’s is of American Energy Music.

So is Burn’s “Traps”. Evidentially featuring the pianist stopping the action as often as he plays it, he also scrapes up and down the speaking length of the strings, then swabs their surface to make them vibrate on their own — and that sound is extended with pedal action. Encompassing smashes, scrapes and rubs, it often seems as if Burn is playing a capsized harp, not a piano. Additionally he seems to be loosening the tuning pins and pressure bars as he improvises, and using a sharp object or a small ball to bounce along the length of several strings to create more shaking sounds.

Guitarist John Russell and bassist John Edwards, both members of different Burn aggregations add the string element to MOPOMOSO missing on MAHOUT. Using an old dance band acoustic, better suited for rhythm guitar backing than the temperate fancies of a folkie, Russell creates a more than 14 minute manifestation of slurred fingering and downstroked plunking with the spiky parts of the notes exhibited. Segmenting his attack with pauses of up to 10 seconds, he often sounds like someone who is determined to play a traditional ballad his own way and goes off on his own harsh tangents when the steel strings won’t cooperate. For a finale, he rasps out a folksy coda with his plectrum up against the bridge

Edwards balances col legno techniques with resonation from the other strings. Thrusting out augmented, squeaking door hinges tones and lower-pitched bowing, thumps and rumbles, at one point the bassist interrupts his collecting and releasing of the strings for a double-stopping walking portion — then ends the piece with unison bowing that produces both cello-like and double bass tones.

Another addition to MOPOMOSO is veteran soundsinger Phil Minton, 63, who has performed with everyone present at one time. While his whirling, wiggling murmur and cries, not to mention throat retching are an acquired taste, he is one of the few so-called singers to produce simultaneous vocal split tones, one high-pitched like bird twitters and the other lower pitched like the braying of a large hound.

“Quintet ‘til the End of Time”, the aptly named group track, submerges Minton’s cries and murmurs into the general narrative. With warbles from Coxhill meeting wood-scraping arco exposition from Edwards, and steady strumming from Russell plus irregular piano patterns from Burn combining, Minton’s omni-directional cries help solidify the idea of free improvisation to which all subscribe.

These CDs define improv from an American and a British perspective. Both deserve to be heard on both sides of the Atlantic.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Mahout: 1. The Mahout 2. M.E.W. 3. Streams 4. Ancient Stars 5. The Varmint (for Jack Elam) 6. Dusk 7. Zircon

Personnel: Mahout: George Haslam (baritone saxophone, tarogato); Borah Bergman (piano); Paul Hession (drums)

Track Listing: Mopomoso: 1. Brush With Gravity 2. Pufff 3. ‘M 4. Woodcuts 5. Waiting for Lol 6. Speechless 7. Traps 8. Quintet ‘til the End of Time

Personnel: Mopomoso: Lol Coxhill ([tracks 6, 8] soprano saxophone); Chris Burn ([tracks 7, 8] piano, percussion); John Russell ([tracks 1, 5, 8] guitar); John Edwards (tracks 4, 8] bass); Phil Minton ([tracks 2, 3, 5, 8] voice)