Scale points on the fever curve
Emanem 409

Staple of jazz records for more than 70 years, recorded meetings between star soloists moved full fledged into improvised music when it came along. Prominent improvisers seem to change their playing partners with the regularity of Jennifer Lopez exchanging paramours though, and it sometimes appears as if each release brings a new grouping.

Chief serial switcher must be London-based guitarist Derek Bailey — grand old man of Britimprov — who in his desire to always make things new, seems to record with every musician he meets. He also revisits partners from time to time — sort of like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — and this CD is a memento of a reunion gig in London with multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine. Fine’s Free Jazz Ensemble (FJE) has maintained its commitment to improvised music since the late 1960s from a base in Minneapolis, Minn.

Fine and Bailey first performed together in 1983, then as part of Company Week in 1988. These 2003 performances however find Fine bringing a couple of clarinets and electronic keyboard to the gig as well as his more customary drum set.

Guitarist Steve Gnitka is a longtime — and often the only other — FJE member, so guitar legerdemain is no novelty to Fine. The only defect on the four tunes here is that while Bailey follows a singular path, the American seems insistent on playing any and every one of his instruments in various ways to try to ruffle Bailey preternatural cool.

Bailey, whose guitar is extended with pedal controlled amplification, appears to be perfectly serene and composed — not in a musical sense of course — throughout, contentedly strumming and picking with minimum reverb. Sanguinely, he lets notes hang in the air, while Fine strives to fill every space.

This is most apparent on the two longest and more characteristic numbers that begin and end the disc. While Bailey relies on pick guard scraping and single-string resonation on “Opening Gamut”, for instance, Fine is off and running with loud cymbal pressure and press rolls. Later, the older man’s short note patterns are so shattered by squeaky, squawky clarinet whimpers that the guitarist strokes out some speedy chromatic runs to counter this altissimo whistling. When Bailey returns to individualized flat picking, Fine then counters with nervous runs and arpeggios on the electric piano. As he scurries busily back-and-forth on the keyboard with an approximation of Free Jazz stylings, Bailey suddenly lets loose with vibrated amp distortion, while his harsh picking leaves no doubt that he’s playing steel strings. By the end, potent feedback echoes from guitar to keep up with Fine’s bangs and rumbles on the snares and toms.

When “Closing Gambit” comes around however, Bailey already has upped the distortions and volume from his pedal-controlled amp a couple of times to meet Fine’s weighty piano chording and screeching reed lines. With the drummer initially restricting himself to scattered skin slashes and intermittent cymbal strokes, it’s Bailey who turns predatory. At one point he displays the sort of ringing strums that were stock in trade for dance band guitar players in the 1940s and 1950s. Later, he satisfies himself with clumps of downstroke picking and still later he produces pointed licks extended by delay, that seem to resonate on their own course. As Fine contents himself with trying to play a military tattoo, the guitarist ends the duet with scratches on the fretboard and a single, distorted note.

Meetings like this confirm the singular attributes of each player, though this time age seems to have triumphed over relative youth.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Opening gamut 2. Extract before 3. Extract after 4. Closing gambit

Personnel: Derek Bailey (guitar with pedal controlled amplification); Milo Fine (B-flat and E-flat clarinets, electronic keyboard and drums)