The Compass, Log And Lead
Intakt CD 103

The Art of Improvisation
Mutable Music 17523-2

By Ken Waxman

Welcoming a variety of non-traditional influences, both these string-oriented CDs confirm that 21st Century improvisation has become catholic enough to accommodate more than stereotypical roots influences.

While fiddler Leroy Jenkins is a long-time members of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM), jazz’s paramount musical collective; veteran Rich O’Donnell is from the legit side of the fence, having spent 43 years as principal percussionist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, been head of Washington University’s percussion department and director of its Electronic Music Studios. Chinese-born Min Xiao-Fen frequently brings the classical textures of the pipa, or four-stringed Chinese lute to jazz and New music; while prepared piano player Denman Maroney adapts his percussive techniques and intervallic playing to jazz/improv with bassist Mark Dresser and elsewhere to notated music.

Meanwhile THE COMPASS, LOG AND LEAD features a Bay area trio that has bypassed so-called mainstream jazz altogether. British-born Fred Frith, who plays acoustic guitar, organ and violin here, has worked his way from the art rock of Henry Cow and the Skeleton Crew to improv with ROVA saxophonist Larry Ochs, among others. A member of the rock band Charming Hostesses, Carla Kihlstedt, who plays violin and the Swedish nyckelharpa here, also has associations with improvisers like clarinetist Ben Goldberg. Meanwhile British-born Stevie Wishart, who also dabbles in electronics, has brought her violin and medieval hurdy-gurdy to improv associations such as pianist Chris Burns’ Ensemble and duets with hard-blowing saxophonist Paul Dunmall.

On four longish selections, THE ART OF IMPROVISATION’s players utilize decisive strategies plus consummate instrumental techniques to create improvisations that reflect all their backgrounds – and more – as well as modulations that don’t fit traditional schema. Thus some timbres mix deliberate node-twisting internal piano string resonation with sprightly fiddle melodies. Others maximize the piano’s percussive friction, the better to intersect with concussive, wood resonating tones from O’Donnell and spiccato from Jenkins. Min’s four-strings and 30 frets allows her to produce harp-like glissandi to meet the violinist’s repeated counter tones or tautly flat pick as if she was playing a Bluegrass dobro to counter the fiddler’s double stopping.

On “To Live”, the result is a New music Oriental hoedown. Slaps and scrapes from Min, Maroney’s hand-stopped string coloration plus Jenkins’ distinctive sliding bow pressure reference a Chinese erhu, and the percussionist’s intermittent pops and taps cement the aural image.

Multifaceted and staccato, the curlicue tremolo tones that emanate from the four suggest electronic interface although none is present. At 18-minutes, “To Sing” is the most thematic tune with Maroney’s sound board technique allowing him to not only create a legato melody, but also to seemingly duet with himself as the variations arise. Later, Jenkins’ swift, sul ponticello textures change the mood to add rigid string tapping. O’Donnell’s contributions end up sounding as if he’s banging pots and pans together or hitting an Inuit whale drum. Still, before the percussionist definitely sums up the situation with tam tam and tubar bell shaking and a final wooden pop, Min has turned her chromatic dobro-like picking to a caressing wind-chime-like tones as Jenkins’ fiddle lines conclude higher pitched and more abstract.

Superficially more folksy and acoustic, THE COMPASS, LOG AND LEAD has a literal electronic interface. Yet while Wishart may use that to extend her improvisations, much of the time she’s manipulating her mechanical viol or hurdy gurdy, whose drone bass strings supply primitive amplification as well.

This strategy is most prominent on “Postcard from the Back” and “Abstract Expressionism” The former tune’s squirming theme is outlined in cranked staccato lines as Frith rubs rather than strums his guitar and Kihlstedt provides contrapuntal asides. Outputting weeping near-Roma textures on the later composition, the fiddler uses wide sweeps to augment her vibrations to impressionistic timbres. Meanwhile, abrasively rasping the plectrum across the strings, the guitarist remains in the background strumming. Triggered sequences also add heft to Wishart’s hurdy-gurdy, with the piece concluding with the crackling sound of the pick landing on a hard floor.

Elsewhere, sawing spiccato and plucked pizzicato lines from the violin struggle to not be disconnected from below-the-bridge and near-the-tuning-pegs guitar plucks plus string-tapping pitches. However despite the atmospheric interface elsewhere, there appear to be times when Frith could be marking time with laid-back strumming as if he’s waiting for a folkie to begin singing.

Both improvised in real time, these CDs confirm the pleasures and pitfalls of that situation. Seemingly somewhat pre-organized, Jenkins’ Driftwood quartet’s four selections confirm the participants’ skills. Despite electronic oscillation and multi-instrumentation, Frith, Kihlstedt and Wishart don’t fare as well, with coherence dissipated over 12 shorter tracks.

Track Listing: Art: 1. To Live – Allegro Moderato 2. To Sing- Andante Cantabile 3. To Run – Vivace 4. To Believe – Pure Motion

Personnel: Art: Leroy Jenkins (violin); Min Xiao Fen (pipa), Denman Maroney (piano); Rich O’Donnell (percussion)

Track Listing: Compass: 1. Time Comes Presto 2. A Beautiful Thing to Forget/får ej tåckas 3. Look at Sky Go 4. Dog-eared* 5. I am Buffalo Bill Today 6. Initially This 7. Postcard from the Back 8. I am Map 9. Abstract Expressionism 10. Dream as a Means 11. Aller Retour 12. Time Goes Largo

Personnel: Compass: Fred Frith (guitar, organ and violin*); Carla Kihlstedt (violin and nyckelharpa); Stevie Wishart (violin*, hurdy-gurdy and electronics).