Philipp Wachsmann/Martin Blume

Pacific 2003
Bead Records Special CD07 SP

Philipp Wachsmann/Matthew Hutchinson
Startle the Echoes
Bead Records Special CD05 SP

One of the first musicians to drift from contemporary classical music into Free Improv in the 1970s was Ugandan-born, London-based Philipp Wachsmann. Since then Wachsmann has worked with everyone from pioneering BritImprov trombonist Paul Rutherford to young Bay area bassist Damon Smith. An early adapter of live electronics, the violinist has helped other players, such as saxophonist Evan Parker, work out a rapprochement with kilowatts.

Over the years he has played in groups as large as the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and as small as solo. Yet, as these notable CDs demonstrate, his recent preference seems to be for duos. Neatly balanced in conception and execution the two discs find the fiddler trading licks with two long-time associates who have partnered him in larger combos.

Concentrating on Wachsmann’s acoustic prowess, Pacific 2003 is a souvenir of gigs with percussionist Martin Blume in Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco. Part of the band Lines with the violinist, Blume from Bochum, Germany, has worked with other outstanding Euro improvisers ranging from Italian saxophonist Mario Schiano to German trombonist Johannes Bauer.

Startle the Echoes on the other hand draws on the fiddler’s electronic side. Here both Wachsmann and keyboardist Matthew Hutchinson attach live electronics to their instruments to alter sounds and generate new ones. Hutchinson, whose keyboard of choice is the synthesizer, has played with the violinist since his earliest improv days. Today he sometimes works in pianist Chris Burn’s Ensemble and with bassist Tony Wren. The CD’s six tracks were also recorded live, but at three London gigs.

The difference between the two sessions is apparent from the beginning. Spike(d) Dance”, on Startle the Echoes for instance, features Wachsmann’s hoedown-like string clusters pitch-sliding into a near-bucolic melody as Hutchinson-produced electronics whistle and hiss. As the fiddler’s downstrokes and double stops gradually turn to col legno timbres, string vibrations abut wiggling synthesizer signals and sampled bird calls flutter among the textures.

Although Wachsmann also expresses his pizzicato style with mandolin-like picking throughout the six tracks, most of the time his underlying references are to the arco sensitivity of acoustic instruments and so-called serious music. Forte crescendos, sharp vibrations and buzzing bottom strings underlie his fundamental harmonic logic. Additionally, when the violinist introduces live electronics here, they add an extra element of polyphonic expanse to his solos rather than utilizing wave forms as a separate musical instrument.

In contrast, Hutchinson, whose background was initially jazz, concentrates on percussive and staccato voicing, at points sounding as if he’s wrenching apart his keyboard with his bare hands. Ratcheting pitches, spaceship landing sound effects and flanged rumbles add a harsh subtext to his output. There are even points where his interface seems defiantly provocative in the face of the violinist’s stoic sweeps. Is he burlesquing the so-called classical references?

More empathy seems to be on show on Pacific 2003, which in spite of its title reaches its musical peaks during the Chicago-recorded tracks. The nearly 14-minute “Coyote 4” is a particular stand-out, especially when half-way through Wachsmann seems to clone himself, simultaneously picking and bowing at different tempi. In response, Blume ricochets single beats across his snares and gracefully taps his cymbals –

after having first announced his presence with recurring bell-pealing strokes as if he’s an itinerant knife-grinder advertising his services.

Elsewhere the fiddler moves from languid harp-like glissandi to ample sul ponticello snaps to banjo-like clawhammer runs as the drummer vibrates and manipulates parts of his kit. Polyphonically shaping side scrapes, skin slaps, hand drumming and what could be spoon-rattling into an accompanying mosaic, Blume’s side of the conversation varies from stop time to abstractions, chosen with care to bond with Wachsmann’s abstract spiccato or legato impressionism.

Variations of this intuitive partnership surface on the California tracks as well. Individually the playing is just as spectacular – particularly note Wachsmann’s slashing spiccato and clusters of stops and squeezes, plus Blume’s rim-shot flaps, drum-head rattles and marimba-like wooden pops – yet the broken-octave improvising seems a bit unconnected. While the fortissimo and agitato passages are exciting, at points the intersection fades to near silence which could suggest cerebral concentration or momentary befuddlement,

Overall, Wachsmann’s acoustic meeting with Blume is more satisfying than the electronic interface with Hutchinson. Both CDs will likely be welcomed by long-time followers of any of the musicians. Still, for the casual listener, the illuminating spark the three, especially the violinist, brings to other sessions, appears be unplugged in certain instances.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Pacific: 1. Coyote 1 2. Coyote 2 3. Coyote 3 4. Coyote 4 5. Coyote 5 6. Coyote 6 7. Coyote 7 8. Coyote 8.

Personnel: Pacific: Philipp Wachsmann (violin) and Martin Blume (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Startle: 1. Spike(d) Dance 2. Dream Spaces 3. Sight Line 4. Recourse 5. Discourse 6. Interiors

Personnel: Startle: Philipp Wachsmann (violin and electronics) and Matthew Hutchinson (keyboards and electronics)