Six Improvisations for Guitar, Bass and Drums
H&H Productions HH-1

Weird Weapons

Put aside the associations you have developed for conventional guitar trios like those lead by Jim Hall or the late Charlie Byrd. Similarly exploratory, the title of MAP’s CD could work for either band. At the same time both sessions –serendipitously recorded two months apart – additionally highlight the global reach of free music.

Both trios are made up of musicians from three different countries. MAP is an American/Australian/Japanese trio; Rupp, Buck and Williamson are respectively from Germany, Australia and Canada. While you can’t ascribe merit to internationalism, it’s possible that different experiences and a communal exhibition of technical dexterity have gone into producing these dazzling CDs.

American guitarist Mary Halvorson plays in Anthony Braxton’s sextet and has an improvising duo with violist Mary Pavone; Australian bassist Clayton Thomas has worked with players ranging from multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore of Manhattan to trumpeter Axel Dörner of Berlin; and Kobe-born percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, who now lives in Easton, Penn. has partnered explorers like French saxophonist Michel Doneda.

Self-taught, Saarlouis-born guitarist Olaf Rupp has worked with representative figures of the international avant garde, from American saxophonist John Zorn to Tuvan vocalist Sainkho Namtchylak. Vancouver-born, now London-based Williamson plays with improvisers from the Netherlands like drummer Han Bennink and reedist Ab Baars. Sydney-born Buck has played with people like Zorn and Amsterdam-based The Ex. One-third of Australian microtonal The Necks band, another member is pianist Chris Abrahams, who has also recorded with bassist Thomas.

MAP’s six improvisations are laid-back and succinct compare to WEIRD WEAPONS’ two in-your-face note explosions. The first, “Naugahyde”, which times in at nearly 34 minutes, is almost as lengthy as the other band’s entire CD, which is about 37 minutes long.

Partitioning this brevity, Halvorson mostly sticks to patterning, gentle strumming and finger taps on the guitar’s neck. Col legno, sul tasto and sul ponticello thrusts characterize Thomas’ responses. Meanwhile Nakatani extends the pitches and accents available from his drum set with, gongs, cymbals, singing bowls and metal objects plus various sticks and bows.

Because of this it’s often the guitar melodies and rhythms that link these compositions, as the bassist and percussionist rattle, ratchet and rasps their parts. Throughout, timbre melding amplifies many of the trio’s individual gestures. Of the improvisations the final track is the most singular. An example of how concentrated pulsations can replicate electronic-like patterns without plugged-in instruments, an interlude featuring Halvorson’s overloaded buzzing amp is actually an anomaly. Instead flanged pulses evolve from absolute music with the percussionist producing gongs or tam tam-like sounds, and Thomas applying col legno pressure that turns mechanized as the guitarist contributes distinctive slack-key-like tones.

Earlier, on the third and longest improv, it appears that Thomas’ spiccato strokes are intensified with horizontal sticks rammed between the strings, Nakatani’s bell-ringing involves echoing resonation with its placement on top of a cymbal, and Halvorson’s shuffling, single-note placement, enlarged with amp distortion suggests a parallel but contrapuntal line. With all three performing veloce, the percussionist exposes cymbal claps plus ruffs and bounces on the drums. As the finger-picked guitar notes become faster, wider and more splayed, the guitarist ratchets up the tempo to slur them into one another. MVP here, the bassist not only walks but batters the waist and ribs of the instrument’s wood.

With the pulses reaching a blurred crescendo of distorted speed, the piece downshifts to reverberating twangs that sound as if they migrated from the first Pink Floyd LP, finally climaxing as Nakatani jabs sticks at every part of his drums but the tops, producing a fortissimo but final crash.

Such barely constrained sonic violence also predominates on WEIRD WEAPONDS. The entirety of both tracks is almost made up with the kind of dissonant intensity which characterize MAP at its most engaged. Distinctively enough, Rupp thrusts his tough arpeggios and distinctive tremolo into the dense playing situation with an acoustic, nylon-string guitar.

Clusters of sound and energy predominate – agitato, prestissimo and fortissimo – with the sweeping guitar string patterns, pressured bass notes and chain shaking and ratcheting percussion reminiscent of an early Derek Bailey trio, if the British guitarist had worked with, say, drummer Roger Turner as well as bassist Barry Guy.

Organized around hard, repetitive down strokes from Rupp, cross-patterning frails and fills from Buck and basement echoing col legno spans from Williamson, the effect is what you imagine the soundtrack would reflect if a trio of mad scientists were foraging through a combination laboratory and junk shop.

Tapping and slapping tones on the bridge and up the neck, the guitar is a perpetual motion machine with its tremolos and diamond-hard string snaps often turning to note clusters. Retorts take the form of rammed floor kettle and snare tops and drumstick dragged across the ride cymbal, as well as J. Arthur Rank-like gong soundings. Blunt, irregular patterns take up another portion of the tracks, with the bassist seemingly intent on never appending a continuum.

Eventually, at about the half-way point, when it appears that no more muscle could be applied to any of the instruments the polyphonic cooperation reaches a crescendo. Rupp turns to banjo-like chromatic effects, Buck to accelerating metallic-splashes and slashes, and Williamson to constantly changing patterning and accents. With every aural cavity crammed all have to slam on the metaphorical brakes, which they do with gradual s sul ponticello bass lines, rigid string snapping and scrapped and patted drum bounces.

Each of the overlong tracks – “Spandex” counts in at a smidgen less than 24 minutes – evolves the same way, with the contrapuntal dynamics reaching such a pitch of unrestrained excitement that you hardly noticed the passing of time – although each independently reaches a satisfactory cool down and conclusion.

MAP and Rupp, Buck and Williamson use supplementary implements and a mind set that takes unexpected timbres and electronics into the mix when improvising. Yet the results – especially for the musically adventurous – are as satisfying as any conventional guitar-bass-drum trio session you may have heard in the past.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Weird: 1. Naugahyde 2. Spandex

Personnel: Weird: Olaf Rupp (guitar); Joe Williamson (bass); Tony Buck (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Six: 1. Improvisation 1 2. Improvisation 2 3. Improvisation 3 4. Improvisation 4 5. Improvisation 5 6. Improvisation 6

Personnel: Six: Mary Halvorson (guitar); Clayton Thomas (bass); Tatsuya Nakatani (drums and percussion)