Jonathan Chen

Jonathan Chen Orchestra
Asian Improv AIR 0071

Graham Clark & Stephen Grew

Improvisations Series One

Gas gcimprov1

Although the instrument most identified with traditional Western art music, over the past 100 years the violin’s range and timbre have been extended, with it increasingly taking on new sonic roles.

This change is illuminated on these duo sessions – one American and one British. While each has much to recommend it – and both take as a starting point the discordant free-jazz fiddling of players such as Billy Bang and Leroy Jenkins – there’s a lot more than separates them besides instrumentation. Here Manchester-based violinist Graham Clark is partnered by the piano of Lancaster’s Stephen Grew, while Middletown, Conn.-based violinist Jonathan Chen’s so-called orchestra is limited to himself and one of Chicago’s busiest and most versatile bass players, Tatsu Aoki.

With its 14 untitled improvisations lasting from fewer than 1½ minutes to nearly 20, Grew, who has recorded with bassoonist/saxophonist Mick Beck, and Clark – a member of psychedelic jazz-rock band Gong as well as improv sessions with the likes of drummer Paul Hession – delves deeply into the realm of abstract rock, jazz and mixed-media settings. Thus the rhythmic impetus is muted.

Chen and Aoki on the other hand are all about rhythm. The steady slaps and hearty whacks on his bull fiddle which Aoki has used to back saxophonist Fred Anderson and Mwata Bowden stud nearly every track. Additionally Chen, who also composes electro-acoustic and installation pieces, eschews formalism for a raw, scrubbed timbre. Due to a shared background and similar experience in the bassist’s Miyumi Project, the two also add Asian-styled music echoes to their interaction.

What that means is that the whimpering, astringent tone of Chen’s violin often approximates that of a two-stringed erhu, while the reverberating impulses produced from Aoki’s pummeling of his instrument could come from a shamisen, ruan or other Oriental lutes – or perhaps an inventively-manipulated taiko drum.

Tension upsurge and reflective multiphonics from both musicians characterize a track such as “Bracket”, which initially exposes such staccato feed back, that the resulting timbres resembles that of a reed instrument, rather than a string set. Pointed and jagged, Chen’s sul ponticello textures abut Aoki’s rasgueado patterns with neither supplanting the other.

Connecting through repeated sound motifs, the two not only are metrically in tune, but vary the attack with broken chords. Nearly every imaginable string tone and partial is exposed on “Beneath the Skin” for instance, as the crying, near-verbalized interface becomes high-frequency, with sharp, expansive band-saw-like strokes on the bull fiddle encompassing one section and multiphonic fiddle scrapes making up the other.

Although there are instances throughout where either man’s output seems to retreat into clinks and clanks – or protracted pauses – the alternate brute force plus sympathetic embellishment are more prominent. “Backwards”, the nearly 10-minute track which completes the CD exemplifies this direction – plus adding Orientalized overtones. As Chen angles his bow to scrape and scratch vivid, high-pitched tones, Aoki’s strummed arpeggios migrate to extracting the maximum rhythm from a two-note motif. Emboldened, Chen’s playing becomes even more dissonant, triple-stopping his textures through spiccato and sul ponticello motions until the bassist’s hard smacks curtail the expansion.

As expressive, but downplaying the other duo’s overt percussiveness, Grew and Clark rely on responsive counterpoint improvisation rather than call-and-response. Although lyrical passages are minimal, never is there sonic coarseness for its own sake. For instance, with Grew’s kinetic note clusters backing him, Clark sound a glissandi that leads to a sky-high pitch, but does so without the line turning atonal.

For his part the pianist’s fantasias can comprise a variety of strategies in response to the violinist’s thin spiccato scrapes and sul ponticello plunks. During one duet his arpeggio curves follow slaps on the instrument’s wood and what sounds like paper being crumbled. The finale is a contrapuntal duet between plucked violin strings and stopped internal piano strings.

Unified rather than experimental even the shorter tracks find the two investigating more than one tonality or timbre. Meanwhile, “No. 9” – the bravura, nearly 20-minute CD centerpiece – has enough scope to almost be a multi-movement suite.

Beginning with widely spaced processional measures from Grew, Clark’s responses are kinetic, repeated and frenetic. Turning to shuffle bowing, the fiddler appears determined to play “Flight of the Bumblebee”, that is until the pianist’s fanciful impressionistic accompaniment turns edgy. The subsequent string variations swell inviting the intersection of keyboard cadenzas. Clark’s scratching out of a simple nursery-rhyme-like theme brings out a dynamic contrasting melody from Grew. Then the pattern is repeated in revere. Maintaining the veloce interface, the two eventually meld high-frequency arpeggios from Grew and moderated and lyrical glissandi from Clark.

Both discs offer extended essays in violin virtuosity – with each string avatar mated with an equally clued-in partner. Further fiddle tonal experiment, as well as ancillary redefinitions of the hoary instrument’s role within free music will likely arise from these duo members

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Improvisations: 1. No. 1 2. No. 2 3. No. 3 4. No. 4 5. No. 5 6. No. 6 7. No. 7 8. No. 8 9. No. 9 10. No. 10 11. No. 11 12. No. 12 13. No. 13 14. No.14

Personnel: Improvisations: Graham Clark (violin) and Stephen Grew (piano)

Track Listing: Jonathan: 1. Reading Comprehension 2. Beneath the Skin 3. Capital 4. Imago 4. Bell 5. Harber 6. Bracket 7. Four Twenty-Three 8. Backwards

Personnel: Jonathan: Jonathan Chen (violin) and Tatsu Aoki (bass)