Oren Marshall

Introduction to the Story of Spedy Sponda/Part One: In a Silent Room
Slowfoot Records SLO 003

Leo CD LR 461

Pictorially the first CD here could be represented by a happy face; the second with a serious one. Each features the tuba – one of the world’s most maligned instruments – and each is illustrative of unique and memorable ways to extend the bulky axe’s timbres beyond its usual parameters.

Although Triskaidekaphobia is a trio disc featuring analogue synthesizer stylist Thomas Lehn and reedist Frank Gratkowski, both of Cologne, along with tubaist Melvyn Poore, the sonic spectrum on the other disc is just as large – perhaps larger. That’s because London-based tubaist Oren Marshall uses electronics and extensions to produce additional sound bites, performing on one track, for instance, on five different tubas simultaneously.

The happy face designation may be a little too extreme since Marshall is an experienced improviser who has recorded with tenor saxophonist Paul Dunmall and guitarist Derek Bailey among others. His disc isn’t a Pollyannaish exercise but an experiment in bringing the suppleness and rhythmic thrust of rock and jazz to solo low brass music. Poore’s session isn’t long faced either. Still, aided and abetted by the others’ contributions, it goes even further in exposing the tuba tones he has contributed as a member of the King Übü Orchestrü as well as the European Tuba Quartet.

Both Lehn, who often works with the likes of British saxophonist John Butcher and American drummer Gerry Hemingway, and Gratkowski, who has played with musicians as disparate as Butcher and the Dutch big band Bik Bent Braam, do their best to extend the timbres of their respective instruments as well. Each has recorded solo CDs, and both have taken it upon themselves to amplify their chosen instrument’s range.

Over the course of the CD’s hour plus length though, sound experimentation does put rather a long face on the four extended compositions. Silences are as much a part of the program as pitch and timbre ruses; and like many improv discs, there are many times the listener would be hard pressed to figure out to which instrument a tone should be ascribed.

With a booming, subterranean growl, in fact, it’s often Poore’s slurred asides that are most identifiable. Of course when Gratkowski unsheathes his contrabass clarinet the reed smacks and snarling reverberations move occupy similar territory.

This takes place on the CD’s final and arguably most memorable track, “Hot Cross Buns”. Limiting himself to clattering, spiccato-like percussion timbres, the synthesizer player clear the way for the other two. Starting pure toned, Gratkowski gradually introduces a series of elongated pitch vibrations as Poore’s encircling tuba rumble expands with intense vibrato and bubbling lip osculation. Finale is a series of pressured grace notes that gradually die away into silences.

Earlier compositions feature whirling, outer-space-like coils from Lehn amplified with ring modulator-like pulses that reverberate sonic pings and concentrated metallic lines. Whooshes cross wired pulses and knob turns suggest the analogue instrument is being tuned as it is being played. Responding to these mechanized hisses and buzzing oscillations, Poore alternates basement counter tones with mid-range vibrations, while Gratkowski sticks to somewhat legato contralto modulations.

Droning reed pops and twisted flanges from the synthesizer characterize “Renaming a Boat” which is taken both adagio and agitato. With the tubaist pumping a steady rhythm and Gratkowski contributing unvarying overblown lines, the piece reaches a climax of sorts one-third of the way through. Latterly the sections reassemble contrapuntally with the reedist tongue popping, Lehn triggering pulses and generated sounds including flute-like whistling and cymbal-like rattles. Poore’s valve twisting and emptying almost creates a duet with himself, especially when inward breaths make room for polyphonic lowing.

All these brass techniques and more figure into Spedy Sponda, with Moore’s seven untitled improvisation encompassing everything from sub-basement rumbles to back and forth hocketing and hunting horn-like expansion. Sometimes he seems to be echoing mellow notes from a mountain top, at other times reconfiguring a bass bugle’s mess call with rubtao textures.

Moreover the electronics that were Lehn’s domain on the other CD are utilized full force by Marshall. As early as the second track processed fuzz-tone slurs and what sounds like a wah-wah pedal turns tuba tones into those that resemble a psychedelic era electric guitar. Muffled voices that seem to come from a short wave radio receiver add to the phantasmagoria.

With each track running into the next in the form of a suite, this electronic-acoustic interface continues throughout the disc. Barking, gurgling and wheezing through the mouthpiece with blocked valves create textures that could come from the soundtrack to a Space Invader movie, sequential fiddle parts or brassy trumpet tremolos. At another juncture a brassy spurt of sound turns to a capillary slur as if Marshall’s manipulating a slide – not a valve – trombone.

Percussive key thumps precede a Tubby the Tuba-like chromatic melody that soon is joined by a second line to provide counterpoint. Tiny mouth-shaped blats share aural space with plunger timbres, which sound as if a sequence controller attached to an effects pedal has transformed his tuba into a bass guitar. Meanwhile this Summer-of-Love-like freak out eventually gives way to distorted note bites, which when pumped up with the overdubbed tuba sound like the entire trombone section in a Swing band.

Compelling as well as contemporary, Spedy Sponda is a disc to seek out. Similarly those interested in electronic and acoustic instruments’ limits will look for Triskaidekaphobia.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Triskaidekaphobia: 1. Ladders and Stairs 2. Umbrellas 3. Renaming a Boat 4. Hot Cross Buns

Personnel: Triskaidekaphobia: Frank Gratkowski (clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet); Melvyn Poore (tuba and euphonium); Thomas Lehn (analogue synthesizer)

Track Listing: Introduction: 1. 10:06 2. 6:08 3. 1:49 4. 9:24 5. 4:41 6. 9:29 7. 3:08

Personnel: Introduction: Oren Marshall (tuba and electronics)