The Schizo Quartet

Don’t Answer It
Loose Torque LT 013

The Occasional Quartet

Desire Lines

Loose Torque LT 012

These two, somewhat fancifully titled sessions fro the United Kingdom, held together by the versatile bass playing of Nick Stephens, proves that no matter how long they’ve been involved with it, veteran improvisers still have much to say in Free Music. Still precisely because these players have reached the pinnacle of their craft, one wishes that passion as well as restrain was on show.

Both CDs, on Stephens own imprint, also reflect the wry, understated humor peculiar to the British. The Schizo Quartet is, in fact, a duo, with trumpeter Jon Corbett, best-known for his work with Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, Stephens’ only partner. Similarly the Occasional Quartet got its name because its four members have averaged about one gig a year since its formation in 2001. Besides Stephens, the others are violinist Nigel Coombes, who has recorded with keyboardist Steve Beresford; drummer Tony Marsh, who worked with saxophonist Evan Parker; and tenor saxophonist Garry Todd, who played with guitarist Derek Bailey.

That said, an alternate title for Desire Lines could be “Where’s Nigel”? For while the two long tracks are crammed with Todd’s often staccato timbral elaborations, Marsh’s plops, clinks and rolls plus Stephens’ time-keeping, only once – about 15 minutes into the first track – is there any extended aural evidence of Coombes’ presence. Perhaps the bassist, who uses variety of stratagems throughout involving guitar-like strumming, thick walking pulses and arco sweeps, isn’t responsible for all the exceptional string work. But Coombes seems to have taken the art of lower case improvisation into its next level: silence.

Thus, the focus is most audibly on the tenor saxophonist, who intentionally or not recalls pre-Ascension John Coltrane with every breath. Double-tonguing, growling and inflating jagged timbres, Todd crams as many notes into his solo as possible. Sometimes he lets loose with a renal honk which is then leads him to push the reed-biting slurs to an even more intense level. Marsh with nerve beats and plops and Stephens with sweeping string respiration should be commended for keeping up with him. Overall though, the session is curiously languid and low-key. It’s as if any and all ideas are being tried out with no exigency to reach a conclusion.

Don’t Answer It – named for a cell-phone warble that sounds in the midst of the improv – is a bit like the other session as well. Except this time the duo expresses itself over the course of nine, instead of two, tracks. This time out, Stephens most common positioning method involves guitar-like patterning and plinking spiccato lines, while Corbett, often (probably hand-) muted, showcases both his speedy gentle tonguing and echoing plunger-style work.

The so-called quartet does live up to its fanciful designation at points however, since sometimes, through sheer technical skills, both men manage to create dual roles for themselves. At one point for instance, one variation of Corbett explores the inside of his mouthpiece with kisses and slurs, while the other blows straight colored air through his horn’s lead pipe. Similarly one Stephens constructs barely-there squeaks in his bull fiddle’s top register, while the other plays fortissimo and agitato lines in its lowest quadrant.

Some of the jumps from intense to indolent on Corbett’s part and from blunt thumps to squeaking cries on Stephens’ are notable as well. Plus, despite how much spittle is raised or body English expended, the tunes stay on an even rhythmic keel. Still it appears as if a modicum of outright, go-for-broke excitement could have been exhibited.

All in all, fans of any of these five players would probably find much to admire on either disc – with Don’t Answer It having a slight edge. But taking the global view, it’s likely true that each – in a collective or solo situation – has been more inspired in his playing elsewhere.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Desire: 1. The path of Lefteousness 2. Desire Lines

Personnel: Desire: Garry Todd (tenor saxophone); Nigel Coombes (violin); Nick Stephens (bass) and Tony Marsh (drums)

Track Listing: Don’t: 1. Loose Talk 2. Why so Blue 3. Don’t Answer It! 4.a) Your Three Are a Right Pair (b) If Ever There Was One 5. Sunday Meeting 6.That Reminds Me 7. In Vino Veritas 8. Smoking Room 9.Happiness is a Warm Zippo

Personnel: Don’t: Jon Corbett (trumpet) and Nick Stephens (bass)