Jim Denley

A Walk in the Palm Forest with My Saxophone
Split Records

Jim Denley/Axel Dörner
Split Records

Jim Denley/Clayton Thomas
Split Records

Robin Fox/Clayton Thomas

By Ken Waxman
March 13, 2006

Not yet 50 years old, saxophonist/flautist Jim Denley is in many ways the Grand Old Man of Australian improv – at least as far as many non-Antipodeans are concerned.

Born in the country town of Bulli in New South Wales and raised in Wollongong, Denley was touring Australia with American and European improvisers in his twenties. He studied flute in Tokyo in the late 1980s, and shortly afterwards relocated to Europe for a period. During that interregnum he became a member of a few groups, most notably pianist Chris Burn’s Ensemble that also included violinist Stevie Wishart and saxophonist John Butcher among others; and Lines, which was usually filled out with German improvisers such as trumpeter Axel Dörner and drummer Martin Blume.

Back in Sydney, as these CDs indicate, he has refined his solo playing, kept up his connections with Europeans such as Dörner, and joined forces with younger, adventurous Australians such as bassist Clayton Thomas, percussionist Will Guthrie and harpist Clare Cooper. Thomas, utilizing bass and treatments, is another sonic traveler, who on their home turf has played with overseas improvisers like American guitarist Mary Halvorson, Japanese-American percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani and British saxophonist Butcher, as well as with fellow Aussies such as violinist Jon Rose, and keyboardist Chris Abrahams.

Not only does Creoles, a characteristic recent duo session from Sydney feature him on bass and Denley on alto saxophone but Substation, recorded around the same time, finds Thomas on bass and objects, facing off against Robin Fox’s live processing. The two burst and redefine electro-acoustic sonic environments, making a duet between a traditional orchestral instrument and a 21st century, electrified machine as life-like as the meeting between the two acoustic instruments on Distinction. Nonetheless, Denley’s Down Under reunion with Dörner on Distinction is also a radical reimagining of dual reed-brass sounds.

Shortest and most solemn A Walk in the Palm Forest with My Saxophone is just that, an 18½-minute mini-disc, where binaural mics attached to Denley’s knees capture the sounds of him striding through, then improvising in a forest on the Queensland coast. Sadly, it’s also an audio elegy to his recently deceased mother,

With Dörner on Distinction, the showpiece is the more-than-40½ minute “Distinction 1”, in which between elongated silences, the two utilize all parts of their mouths, embouchure and throats to secure unique sound waves. Hissing air explosions, lip osculation and bell-like rattles are just one part of the rubato explorations. Tag-teamed, one or the other frequently seems to be spraying nasal tones while the other produces higher-pitches tremolo timbres. At one point ferocious growls and percussive vibrations from the trumpeter lead the saxophonist to turn mouthpiece pops and tongue suction into bubbling capillary grace notes. Expansive oxygen-like gulps from both that appear in round robin fashion, are succeeded by door hinge-like squeaks from one and swelling iron pipe-like expansion from the other.

In truth, telling a particular Dörner mouthpiece-forced breath from a Denley reed vibrated one can be difficult. Together with extended and original techniques, the two seem to be regurgitating the history – and pre-history – of brass bands in single breaths. Throughout, they emphasize the similarities and differences between metal-plated horns with tongue gymnastics, bell-muting contortions, sibilant intonation and circular breathing. As layered pulses appear in double counterpoint from goose neck, lead pipes and body tubes, additional echoes and tongue pressure introduce slurring obbligato and air-leaking hisses that finally turn into insect buzzing polyphony.

For the concluding variation the brassman somehow appears to sound a spiccato fiddle chord as the reedist glides out a lower-pitched ostinato. Eventually, overblown reed split tones and striated bubbling brass lines modulate into delicately colored tinctures. Rubato tongue flutters, cheek pops and resonating sibilant actions fade to silence with the coda – singular echoing breaths that hang motionless in the air.

Denley’s interaction with Thomas on Creoles is far removed from his meeting with Dörner, and not just because his partner is a string player. Recorded in Sydney more than a year after the Dörner disc, the CD features Denley – playing only alto saxophone –

and Thomas, roaming through seven improvisations, including the four-part title track. Unlike Distinction’s overlong selections, the tunes’ relative brevity allow the two to experiment single-mindedly with particular applications, then move on to another technique.

One track, for instance, matches reed spetrofluctuation with a droning metallic bass line, while another showcases the saxist using irregular tongue slaps and growling split tones to overcome the tension created by rubber-band like squeaks from the bass strings that chromatically develop with what appear to be sticks placed among the strings which ricochet as a tone is struck.

Although some of the tunes are invested with near Energy Music multiphonics, and asides which include irregular aviary whistles from the reedist and spectacular col legno and harsh sul ponticello thumps and repercussions from the bassist, most are authoritative enough at near largo tempo. “The Velocity of Viscocity” for example, manages to pack back-of-throat gulps and slightly-out-of-focus reed vibrations from Denley plus shuffled, splintering and buzzing arco pitches from Thomas into a little more than 4½ minutes. Despite its brevity, the piece evolves unhurriedly, with the suggestion of frigid timbres being clipped off a glacier, one ice cube at a time.

Then there’s part one of “Creoles”, which is nearly 12 minutes of languid impulses. Encompassing mini reed squeaks and heavy sul ponticello and sul tasto string pulses, the concentrated rumble of buzzed bass lines is interrupted time and again by concussive tongue fluttering, key percussion and lip and tongue osculation. These split tones that almost seem to vibrate from the gooseneck itself rather than the mouthpiece or reed and eventually, Thomas’ barrage of shuffled spiccato lines turn to cavern-deep-pitched tremolo vibrations spiced occasionally with Denley’s distant wah-wahs.

In spite of the impressive resonations available, Creoles eschews even hints of electronics, which is possibly the raison d’etre of Substation. Immediately louder and more in-your-face than any of the other duo CDs, the six tracks here embrace the ability of Fox’s live processing to convert the timbres created by Thomas’ bass and objects into microtonal washes of sound.

Although Fox may have developed some of the most powerful tools in Australia through his research with MAXMSP, there’s no sense of a Dr. Frankenstein mutating acoustic sounds to his own ends. A fellow scientist, rather than the monster, bassist Thomas retains enough of his instrument’s characteristics to maintain its particular individuality among the polyrhythmic oscillations that surround it. These include keyboard and vibes-like tinctures, penetrating jackhammer styled loops, ringing organ-styled chords and a collection of drones, squeaks, radio wave hisses and outer space rustling that projects sonic Sci-Fi clichés.

For his part Thomas uses his own amplification to thrust prestissimo double- and triple-stopping and higher-pitched sul ponticello strides forward. Besides producing bouncing staccato arpeggios, he also utilizes firm bow pressure to find and emphasis upper partials.

Substation’s more than 27½-minute centerpiece is the jokingly titled “Dust on the Diodes”, features Thomas arco, zigzagging between atypical tones found near the tuning pegs and below the bridge, as Fox creates a micro assembly line of miniscule vibrations and reverberations. With spiccato movements his equivalent of Evan Parker circular breathing on saxophone, the bassist’s improvising is amplified and echoed by a triggered sequence of piercing resonance from Fox. As loops transmogrify to sound washes, adding watery textures and short wave radio-like static, an occasional bow stroke is audible.

Endeavoring to alter the tempo in the concluding few minutes, Thomas is drawn back into the vortex of agitato tone layering, opting for double-stopping and double-strumming to sustain his distinctive solo line.

“Between Downpours” has even more unusual timbres on show during its 19 plus minutes. Most reductionist of the six tracks, polyrhythmic textures concentrate input signals into bell-like resonation and guzheng implications that swell abrasive scratches to harp-like echoes. Faint tendrils of bass strokes and rubs sometime break through the hissing flutters and repetitive oscillations, but the overall impression is of pulsing and gradually fading waveforms.

Just as Thomas is comfortable improvising in an electro-acoustic situation, so is his duo partner Denley. Yet on A Walk in the Palm Forest with My Saxophone, the reedist does what would have impossible in a time before miniaturized electronics. Those mics attached to his knees allow him to scene-set and delineate transitions in the improvisation by replicated movement.

Following an introductory two minutes of tromping through the underbrush, a series of circularly breathed ghost notes and obbligatos hang in the air, followed by solemn silences. Soon double-tongued spooky whistles and dense vibrations divide into two separate streams of air, with one undulating gentle chirps and the other harsh split tones. An interlude of crunching footfalls leads to deeper-toned overblowing coupled with piercing wolf whistles. As colored air forced through the horn’s body tube trills every which way, variations of tire-screeches and aviary cries are implied.

Gathering wind pressure as he physically moves again, the improvisation continues in this stop-and-go fashion, as lip pressures and split tones share aural space with bell-muting and echoing pitches. Fragmenting, Denley’s tone now includes doits, pops and echoes, with the finale a combination of wind tunnel hollers and throat growls. The mics then capture him walking away, as a single note coda sounds closure to this threnody.

Merely one part of the Aussie improv scene, the sonic strengths exhibited on these discs confirm that while musicians there may be Down Under, they’re not beneath their North American and European contemporaries when it comes to aptitude and invention.