In Your Shell Like

Neo-cons and other tin-eared types who harp on Free Music’s so-called break with tradition, should listen carefully to the first track on this CD.

They want tradition? Here’s the sounds of two British musicians creating top rank improvisations using instruments that cast the saxophone and drum sets favored by the neo-boppers into the realm of recent novelties. London-based Paul Dunmall confines his playing to the border bagpipes, while Brussels-based Stevie Wishart extracts unique timbres from the hurdy-gurdy. If racket and clamor are avant-garde, then musicians playing the Scottish and Irish pipes and the portable mechanical viol have been bizarre ultramodernists for at least two centuries.

Dunmall, who usually – and elsewhere on the CD – plays soprano and tenor saxophones in bands led by the likes of pianist Keith Tippet, and Wishart, who is also a violinist with pianist Chris Burns’ Ensemble, aren’t predictable players on their traditional axes. As a matter of fact, there are points on “Shells and Other Things” that the wavering pitch vibrations could easily be linked to synthesized tones.

Throughout, the reedist’s steady spew of air, often circularly breathed, is decorated with oscillating arpeggios from Wishart’s rosined bow. If Dunmall’s style on the chanter appears to have the same velocity and elasticity as his sax work, then Wishart’s stopped strings produce the sort of sul ponticello notes that resonate as if they were looped through a sequencer. Not only that, but she can produce tones as wide as you find from any accordion, and his flutter-toned interface can also be as stretched or as compact as if it came from a saxophone reed.

IN YOUR SHELL LIKE isn’t some trendy example of medieval jazz fusion either. Once they’re joined by percussionist and long-time Evan Parker associate Paul Lytton, the three merely output sounds they feel to the best of their talents, on whatever instruments.

Before that however there’s “Nothing To Do with Shells”, a tenor saxophone-drums duet that could be characterized as the CD’s jazz track. Using the primeval jazz instrument, Dunmall double- and triple-tongues, honks and snorts. Meanwhile Lytton rolls, bounces and rumbles, but shows his BritImprov allegiance by spending as much time evenly tapping his cymbals and a wood block. Then, as the saxophonist spins out multiphonics that grow, combine and split, Lytton appears to be heaving an elongated chain up and down the stairs. As a prelude to Free Jazz snorting and honking, Dunmall introduces a trenchant buzz that makes his point forcefully, until Lytton’s rustling cymbals and chain links join him in double counterpoint. Lighter-toned than previously, Dunmall’s octave runs seem almost pastoral when linked to Lytton’s single, sharp cymbal chime.

More than 16 minutes in length, “The Ears Have It” mixes both traditions, with Dunmall playing bagpipes and soprano saxophone at different times. Rigid string plucks and stops plus floor-rolled unselected cymbals and bell responses back the saxophonist’s twitters. With Wishart creating an altissimo drone, and Lytton ratcheting rebounds, Dunmall switches to bagpipes, so that circular breathing ululations from the chanter are supplemented by harsh whirr and the drone undercurrents from the hurdy-gurdy. Adding an additional buzz, Lytton wets a finger and strokes it across a drum head. Climax is reached as the reedist ripples and surges those fully-formed chanter tones with the bellows as the other instruments evaporate into silence, except for the occasional snare bang and muted string vibration.

Some of the best improv you’ll ever hear on 20th, 19th or 16th century instruments is right here.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Shells and Other Things 2. Nothing To Do with Shells 3. It’s In Your Ear 4. The Ears Have It 5. In Your Shell Like

Personnel: Paul Dunmall (border bagpipes*, soprano [tracks 1, 3, 4, 5) and tenor saxophone#); Stevie Wishart, hurdy-gurdy (tracks 1, 4, 5); Paul Lytton, percussion (all tracks but 1)