Recommended Records ReR/FRO 07

Glimpses of the figurative talent that would later allow him to score films such as Rivers and Tides, ALLIES is a six-movement soundtrack initially commissioned from Fred Frith by Bebe Miller for her dance company in 1989.

Finally mastered in late 2004, the CD is short (just under 40 minutes), and closer to rock music than the sort of work Frith does today. Still it’s an engaging bagatelle, especially since it provides another look at what the guitarist was doing in his post Art Bears period, before he was as strongly committed to open-ended improvisation.

His co-conspirators here are three men then straddling the jazz and rock –

not jazz/rock – continuum. Drummer Joey Barron was more associated with Bill Frisell’s jazz impressionism at the point, though his hard-hitting (literally) work here presages his contribution to Masada. Then as now, leader of intelligent fusion group Curlew, alto saxophonist George Cartwright had employed Frith in his band as a bassist earlier in the decade. Cellist Tom Cora (1953-1998) was at the mid-point of his star-crossed career which saw him moving into jazz/rock/improv by the end of his life.

Essentially designed for dance cues, and with strong rhythmic elements, ALLIES is a cohesive suite, mostly dependent on Cora’s glissandi and spiccato movements to direct the music’s flow, with Frith and Cartwright along to provide counter motifs. To that end, the saxophonist’s jagged screeches are used for surprise as much as punctuation, adding another layer of sudden scene shifting when he reaches full flight.

Frith, who through overdubbing plays guitar, keyboards, bass, violin, drum machine and manipulates tape, is on side where he’s most needed throughout. At point on violin he’ll combine with Cora to boost the string section. On bass, he’s a percussive, background anchor, adding to Barron’s rhythm to solidify the tempo. Unattributed sounds that variously resemble a soprano voice, the scratching of LPs or a glass armonica likely arise from his tape manipulation as well.

As a guitarist his contrapuntal forays could come from two different players. Sometimes his powerful, reverberating riffs are in full rock hero mode, bludgeoning the themes into taking on a heavier back beat. Antithetical to that is his acoustic playing where finger-picking chromatic runs make Cora take on more of a country fiddler persona, with folksy cushioning adding a romantic overlay to the tunes.

Committed to theme and variation, the final track of the suite combines a polyphonic beat with interpolation of what has gone before. Summing up, the postlude is a series of church-like organ chords that get fainter and fainter, then fade away.

If there’s an overall criticism about the CD, it’s that the performance is so dense that there’s no room for breathing space.

No improvisational masterwork, it’s still a disc that will be welcomed by fans of any of the musicians involved.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Rifka 2. Small Mercy 1 3. Nenad 4. A rock and a hard place 5. Davor and Dzenta 6. Small Mercy 2

Personnel: George Cartwright (alto saxophone); Fred Frith (guitar, keyboards, bass, violin, drum machine and tape manipulations); Tom Cora (cello); Joey Barron (drums)