Minton/Van Hove/Mattos/Blume


Activity Centre/Phil Minton
Activity Centre & Phil Minton
Absinth Records


By Ken Waxman
December 5, 2005

He may not be as popular among pop-jazz fans as Jamie Cullum, Harry Connick or Kurt Elling, but no other male vocalist has recorded more experimental improv work over the past quarter century, then London’s Phil Minton, who turned 65 earlier this month.

At his age you’d expect the British vocalist to be a crooner in Chet Baker-Frank Sinatra mould or a rocker like his near contemporaries Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart. Instead the Torquay-born Minton, who like Baker started as a trumpet player, found his voice in Dadesque expostulations with fellow vocalists like Maggie Nicols and Julie Tippetts as well as agitprop in left-wing bandleader Mike Westbrook’s larger projects.

While maintaining his strong ties with other improvisers in the United Kingdom – pianist Veryan Weston and saxophonist John Butcher are long-time partners – he’s now as likely to be collaborating with North Americans or Continentals as Britons.

On three of his newest CDs – there are more, read the Lucas Niggli Zoom Ensemble review last week (Link here Scott?) – by chance or design Minton collaborates with German players each time out. One showcases Toot, a touring group encompassing Minton, experimental trumpet stylist Axel Dörner and quick-fingered Thomas Lehn on analogue synthesizer; Activity Centre adds Minton’s vocal projections to the established Berlin duo of guitarist Michael Renkel, who was in the Phosphor band with Dörner, and percussionist Burkhard Beins, who often plays with other Brits like harpist Rhodri Davies and guitarist John Bisset.

In many ways an all-star session, Axon matches Minton with Antwerp (Belgium)’s Fred van Hove on piano and accordion, whose free music credentials go back to 1960s’ bands with saxophonist Peter Brötzmann; and London-based cellist Marcio Mattos, another veteran free player who has backed up musicians ranging from saxophonist Elton Dean to drummer Tony Oxley . The Teutonic inflections here come from Bochum-based drummer Martin Blume, another veteran Free musician, who is in the Lines band with both Mattos and Dörner.

Concretely, one reason Minton has never been as popular as the pop-jazz crooners or even vocalese experts like Jon Hendricks is because 90 per cent of the time he ejaculations sounds rather than sings words – although those CDs where he does sing conventionally reveal a pleasant, folksy baritone. In his chosen situations he also needs stalwart partners – for the racket that arises from his mouth is so arresting that it continually take centre stage. The veterans on Axon easily hold their own and produce the most notable session of the three, although the more minimal approach of the other two bands results in many fine moments as well.

Oddly enough, Minton begins Activity Centre by clearly stating “too risky”. Considering his vocal gymnastics, the only activity that might be riskier would be to produce an utterance while sword swallowing. Nothing like that is in evidence, although if the Activity Centre was a circus, Minton would very much be in the ring master.

Only rarely does Renkel resort to blunt frailing from his guitar; mostly he seems content to strum almost tonelessly and definitely acoustically, occasionally also adding haphazard plucks and plinks from his zither. For his part, Beins, listed as playing selected objects as well as percussion and zither – Renkel adds percussion as well – introduces timbres that range from stentorian to near silence. He claps his cymbals, resonates tam tams and scratches, slaps, shakes and ratchets the rest of the kit producing tones that sound like dominos being scuffled across the studio floor. Expanding the percussion tones so that they occasionally resembles random Morse Code tapping, elsewhere he bolsters Minton’s vocalization and on the odd occasion replicates crickets chirping or carnivorous animals gnawing. Additionally, on “Hi! Friction”, some instrumental combination brings forth harmonium-like textures that cushion Minton’s whistle and gargles.

These are the least of the throat-clearing noises expended by the soundsinger. Throughout the CD’s six tracks he grumbles and mumbles, gargles and blows raspberries, and variously captures what you figure are budgie twitters as well as the noise of a bear snoring during hibernation.

With a different duo on One, Minton’s mouth repertoire inflates to bring in other animalistic and human-like timbres, since Lehn’s synthesized oscillations and Dörner’s buzzing growls add similar textures from either side. The two stand-out tracks are the first and the last.

“Ma?” the almost-13-minute finale, finds the singer harmonizing with hissing static interference and gong-like vibrations from the synthesizer player plus mechanized buzzes and muted glissandi from the trumpeter. Most notable is a new persona verbalized by Minton, with which its nasal accents, garbled malapropisms and attempts at oddball pronunciation sounds like those ancient comedy sketches of Sid Caesar when the funnyman would doubletalk gibberish in such a way as to imitate the cadences but not the sense of a foreign language.

Created with more gravitas, “AR?” is a slightly more than 31¼-minute magnum opus from a concert in Strasbourg, France that exposes the multitudes of shades the three can color. Beginning with the trumpeter hollowly blowing unsullied air through his lead pipe and developing with Minton’s nearly patented retches, growls and shrills, Lehn then blends in splattering sine waves and shattering pulses. Finally the exposition explodes with spits and lips suction from Dörner, animated reverb from the synthesizer and strangled cries, moans ands whines from Minton.

As the mouth-man broadens his characteristic yawning impulses, brass tongue- flapping vies for aural space with what could be scat singing parodies. Whirling motor stimulus from Lehn and watery blowing from the trumpeter dissolve into an extended flat-lined silence. Heading for a crescendo, Lehn’s machine’s hisses get speedier and Minton’s intonation mutates from nose sneezes and throat pops to what seems to the racket that would be captured if Donald Duck took an anger-management course. All the while Dörner’s half-valve efforts serve as a droning continuum.

Cresting alongside synthesizer oscillations that sound mid-way between a calliope tone and balloon scrapes, Minton fades into approximating both a mewling infant and a crotchety crone. Accelerating into a final variation on the theme, Lehn contributes mechanized wiggles, the trumpeter offers flatulent slurs, and Minton bel canto cries. Gibbering and mumbling like a Bedlam inmate, the vocalizations are nearly buried underneath a crescendo of pedal-point drones from the trumpeter.

Taking his turn among other Free Music old hands on Axon, Minton turns –

for him – reticent, functioning as another band instrument rather than as an upfront soloist as he does on Activity Centre or One. With Van Hove and Mattos wielding chordal instruments played chordally – unlike Renkel’s and Beins’ stratagems –

the soundsinger appears more able to adapt his verbalizations to the others’ creations.

On display are some of Minton’s unique tone expressions, as on “Audiology”, where he bawls out expressions that resemble equally the croak of an archaic blues man, the suppleness of a demented yodeler, and the rant of a sniveling street person. In contrast to these hocketing phrase vibrations, Blume carefully paces his rhythms, Mattos contributes sul ponticello echoes, and Van Hove floats a languid nocturne of piano accents.

Looney Tunes duck quacks plus presto scatting and mumbling dribble from Minton’s lips on “Song for Creatures”, but idiosyncrasy is subdued when they’re mixed among the polyphonic textures the others provide. Rattles, ratchets and slaps come from the percussionist, sweeping jettes and portamento sashays from Mattos and cracked dynamic tonal clusters from the pianist. In fact, at one point, the vocalist seems to be blowing a mouth trumpet to create some individual space for himself.

Midway through, Van Hove reaches inside to the key bed as he and the cellist explore string resonation, the later plucking, and the former fanning. In response Blume approximates the striking of a taiko drum, accompanying the hand concussions with clinks and clicks from unselected cymbals, hi-hat and gongs. The finale features knitting needle-like clanking from the percussionist, sul tasto asides from the cellist and, as a coda, after a compendium of moans from Minton, his voice subsides into post-coital panting.

On the first track, any random vocalizing Minton exhibits elsewhere is more deeply focused as his simulated psychotic ravings polyphonically mate with cello glissandi, piano patterning and gong-like cymbal crashes. Minton’s aviary caws, twitters and whistles arise after Van Hove’s impressionistic harmonies propel the soundsinger from strangled burps to clearer-sounding lyrical tones. At the three-quarter mark, the pianist’s low frequency etudes create their own logical counter melody, showcasing contrasting dynamics, foot-pedal pressures and sudden shifts into duple meter. As Blume cascades clip-clopping wooden blocks and Mattos flings harmonies into the mix, madman-like syllable exhibition – another Minton specialty – disrupts the controlled accompaniment.

The track itself is titled “Constant Comments”, which could also define what the British verbalizer brings to these three CDs. Each is a valuable illustration of his inimitability. Yet it’s the contributions from others on Axon which displays his talents in their most immaculate setting.