Dubious Pleasures
Rat Drifting RD 8

Clean Feed CF 043 CD

No longer a novelty, solo double bass CDs are now practically a rite of passage for low string improvisers. Still there’s a big difference between recording a solo session and creating one with enough imagination and tonal differences to be appreciated by more than just bass fanatics.

Happily, in one case, and unsurprisingly in the other, Rob Clutton and Mark Dresser have turned out discs that can be listened to by any open-minded improvised music follower. UNVEIL is the unsurprising session, since Mark Dresser, who is also a professor in the music faculty of the University of California, San Diego, is one of the music’s pre-eminent bassists, having been part of bands headed by multi-reedist Anthony Braxton, pianist Satoko Fujii and drummer Gerry Hemingway, as well as his own combos. About a decade-and-a-half younger, Toronto-based Rob Clutton on the other hand, is part of that city’s group of burgeoning improvisers involved in Free Jazz and New music and able to play with any visiting soloist as the occasion demands.

Not Dresser’s first solo bass disc, UNVEIL gives him a chance to try out new techniques, tunings and technology in what he calls “a recent document of an ongoing musical obsession”. Belying its title, DUBIOUS PLEASURES, leans a lot more towards the noun than the adjective. By definition not as assured as Dresser’s disc, it certainly gives notice that Clutton is sophisticated enough to do everything he wants to do – solo – and then some.

Over the course of nine tracks his buoyant, thick-toned resonation is showcased andante, adagio and agitato – both bowing and plucking – which allows him to pull appealing timbres from all parts of the instrument, including at the beginning from its wooden waist and belly. At points Clutton produces violent, node scraping extended with shrill, balloon-like rubbing friction; at others his pizzicato string reverberation extends rhythms to their logical conclusions bringing complementary vibrations front and centre along with the initial tone.

“Half Smile” finds him picking notes with a pitch that’s midway between that of a banjo and a sitar, effortlessly accelerating and decelerating until he probes the tones in the instrument’s thick core. Textures proliferate still further on the oddly-named “Musicians and Animals”, as he squeezes the strings for multiphonics. But here and elsewhere, even with col legno or spiccato emphasis, he never negates the woody “bass-ness” of the bull fiddle.

“Pond”, the concluding more-than-13 minute recital, with the CD’s most pedestrian title, is organized in such a way that each hand improvises independently. Here, one section of the strings accompanies in double counterpoint with sonorous almost funereal textures, the shuffle-bowing front line section.

Making each of his hand separately do his bidding is commonplace for Dresser. UNVEIL, however, extends the bass’s electro-acoustic functions further, with coiled pickups embedded in the fingerboard that facilitate the creation of three simultaneous pitches on each string. Except for the title track however, which is double tracked, electronics are nearly inaudible and one track “Lomus” is played completely acoustically. Distinctively enough it’s this one on which it seems that the staccatissimo and contrapuntal bass lines are being produced by two people and four hands.

“Bacahaonne”, dedicated to 86-year-old Israel “Cachao” Lopez, known as the creator of Mambo music and “godfather of Cuban bass,” and loosely based on the harmony from Bach’s Second Violin Partita is described as a fully notated piece. Yet with bows to the fiery conjunto tradition, Dresser’s percussiveness is so concentrated, and his rasgueado skin-on-wood movements so subtle, that it appears as if the phrases are being created on the spot.

Playing this way without resorting to any clichéd Latinisms it’s understandable that he can dedicate another track to the Italian New music bassist Stefano Scodanibbio, who does work similar to Dresser’s from the so-called classical side of the fence. Dresser’s col legno accelerated strikes, there and elsewhere, demonstrate that he’s able to provide the rhythmic impetus while bowing – the slap technique invented by early jazz bassist such as Pops Foster to properly guide loud, horn-heavy bands.

Elsewhere the bassist concentrates sul tasto string pressure into a dense, pulsating mass that almost replicates triggered impulses in this thickened form. Or he builds a series of rugs and tugs into stretched multiphonics. Bitonality is frequently present as well, as on “Cabalaba”, where his simultaneous 12-string guitar-like chromatic frailing and more traditional bass picking echo in two keys. Pumping out textures he also doesn’t neglect the occasional stiff rubber band-like twangs.

Between Clutton’s experiments and promise on his disc, and Dresser’s persuasive application of new techniques and unique use of pick-ups on his, the future of double bass notation and improvisation seems to be in good – albeit calloused – hands.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Dubious: 1. Taken Over by the Hounds of Reason 2. How Big are the Dots 3. Formal Garden 4. Mr. Taciturn 5. Half Smile 6. Air 7. Cloak 8. Musicians and Animals 9. Pond

Personnel: Dubious: Rob Clutton (bass)

Track Listing: Unveil: 1. Lureal 2. Unveil 3. Clavuus 4. Undula 5. Kathrom 6. Cabalaba 7. Entwined 8. Pluto 9. For Scodanibbio 10. Lomus 11. Bacahaonne

Personnel: Unveil: Mark Dresser (bass)