Speak Easy

Back Chats
Creative Sources CS 149 CD

Five Rooms

No Room for Doubt

Amirani Records AMRN 020

Although it’s the least expensive and most portable instrument, the human voice is usually the one most resistant to tessitura experimentation and the innovation of non-standard forms. Perhaps it’s because in most cultures strong, lyrical expression is celebrated and, with the possible exceptions of background harmonizing and so-called scat singing, improvising vocally but without forming words is regarded as eccentric.

Three brave vocalists – England’s Phil Minton and Germany’s Ute Wassermann on Back Chats and Belgium’s Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg on No Room for Doubt work against the stereotypes here. Nonetheless by improvising alongside incomparable and inventive instrumentalists they face another challenge: to integrate themselves into the ensembles so the discs don’t appear to be those of vocalist(s) plus backing group. In the main they artfully succeed.

Grand old man of this sort of vocalese is Minton, who for almost three decades has been framing his gurgles, retches and cavern-echoing cries in situations involving equally committed sound explorers such as pianist Veryan Weston and saxophonist John Butcher. On this CD, the Sarah Vaughn to his Billy Eckstine – or would it be the Ella Fitzgerald to his Louis Armstrong – is classically trained vocalist Wassermann who eschews the standard legit vocabulary for shrill whistles, nose sniffs, aviary cries and lip-percussion. In the past she has duetted with both percussionist Matthias Kaul and trumpeter Birgit Ulher. Wassermann’s and Minton’s partners in Speak Easy are Germans who work with the British vocalist in other configurations: synthesizer player Thomas Lehn and percussionist Martin Blume.

Going it alone vocally as one of Five Rooms is Brussels-based Van Schouwburg, whose overtone extensions, throat singing and invention language expositions have been a feature of concerts with the Belgian Collectif Inaudible and groups with bassist Jean Demey or British guitarist John Russell. Besides Russell, the other Room-mates on this CD are Italians: trombonist Angelo Contini, soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo and cellist Andrea Serrapiglio. Involved with multiphonics and circular breathing, Serrapiglio has done everything from being first trombonist of The Swingers big band to performing live music for Compagnia di Danza Contemporanea di Milano. Mimmo, his long-time associate, is an interdisciplinary artist often concerned, as on this CD, with the relationship between music and text. Almost three decades younger than the others, Serrapiglio moves among standard and unconventional gigs having worked with conventional orchestras and theatre bands, a reggae combo as well as with Mimmo and drummer Francesco Cusa.

During the 17 instant compositions that make up No Room for Doubt’s almost 45-minute program, Serrapiglio’s occasionally lyrical cross tones and the percussive plucks from Russell’s guitar provide the ballast that holds together many of the tunes. At the same time, though, he’s also given space to exhibit tremolo sul ponticello runs and splattering splices. Russell too unusually marks his space with down-strokes and muffled licks. But the guitarist also strums linearly with a mandolin-like tone when facing contrapuntal horn lines; or hammers on the strings to make his point when surrounded by plunger burrs from Contini and Van Schouwburg’s vocal chord splintering that includes undersea gargling and falsetto whimpers.

Diaphragm-forced, foghorn-like pumps from Mimmo alternate with guitar twangs at the same time as the vocalist harmonizes with supple cello lines. Alternately, Van Schouwburg discharges incoherent throat mumbles or expressed himself with watery lip-pops, tongue-stops and duck quacks.

Instrumentally the most notable track is “Calls & Rumours”, where Contini’s and Mimmo’s contrapuntal intersection recalls Steve Lacy’s work with Roswell Rudd. After Serrapiglio’s double bass-like walking and Russell’s splintering guitar licks, the vocalist vibrates his timbre excessively – and expressively – yelping and snarling under-his-breath as Contini brays out a finale.

In contrast “Threshold Lyric” is a vocal tour-de-force initially matching sinuous, nearly rococo reed lines and plunger trombone excursions with vocal harmonizes from Van Schouwburg. Eventually as Mimmo’s wide-bore dissonance inflates so does Van Schouwburg’s sound repertoire, with mewls, whimpers, gurgles and growls. Culminating with broken falsetto sound shards, the verbalization is only bested by reed tongue slaps.

More equitably divided compared to Van Schouwburg’s mouth-and-throat actions holding their own against four instrumentalists, Speak Easy features two soundsingers and two instrument operators performing the five improvisations that make up this nearly 54-minute session. Considering the elasticity of both Wasserman’s and Minton’s vocal equipment though, it’s more difficult to link certain tones to one or the other than to discern Lehn and Blume’s contributions. For instance some of the flat-line nephritic snarls heard are undoubtedly from Wasserman, whereas Minton’s expected Bedlam-reminiscent languages include a hearty helping of falsetto hysteria.

From the first track, when the two voices commingle, their tessitura is widened or narrowed to best vibrate alongside the others’ work. Minton’s throat-gargling fits on top of brush swishes and drum top friction from Blume, while bel-canto warbling and glossolalia from Wasserman abuts snare pops and flams. Synthesized crackles and splutters advance to dot-dash formulae as Minton’s gurgles and resonating bass-baritone undulations plus Wasserman’s Minnie Mouse-like lip burbling accelerates to unleash what sounds like an aviary of whistles, peeps and chirps. Tongue-twanging, buzzing syllables, rumbling snores and pig squeals are also on show, countered by bell-pealing plus reverberating oscillations from Lehn.

If anything though, the vocal performances are the inverse of anthropomorphism. Wasserman and Minton’s textures sound no more human than those proffered by Lehn and Blume; and often less homo sapient. On the fourth track climax for instance, Lehn’s extended signal processing becomes shriller when strengthened by a whispering bubble of nonsense syllables from Minton and Wasserman’s raps and twittering. Blume’s repetitive pounding on wood blocks and knackers is given added impetus from Daffy Duck-like syllable spitting, while Wasserman’s peeps are backed by percussion-produced hoof-beats. Finally Minton’s yodeling matches up with Lehn’s wave form wiggles in a fashion similar to the link between bass drum thumps and tonsil scraping cries.

Either of these discs demonstrates how verbal sound astronauts expand the limits of nature’s oldest instrument when dealing with contemporary instrumental tones. The secret: not shying away from primitive mouth expression.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Room: 1. The Door 2. No Room for Doubt 3. Other Conspiracy 4. Promises: the Farewell Speech 5. Train jumper 6. Afternoon Revelation 7. The Next Room Interlude 8. Cried Reasons 9. Threshold Lyric 10. Conspiracy #2 11. Briskly Done 12. Cracknel (clouded marble) 13. Attractive Theory 14. Conspiracy #1 15. Abstract* 16. Neglected Garden* 17. Calls & Rumours

Personnel: Room: Angelo Contini (trombone); Gianni Mimmo (soprano saxophone); John Russell (guitar); Andrea Serrapiglio (cello); Paolo Falascone (bass)* and Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg (voice)

Track Listing: Back: 1. Backchat 1 2. Backchat 2 3. Backchat 3 4. Backchat 4 5. Backchat 5

Personnel: Back: Thomas Lehn (analogue synthesizer); Martin Blume (drums and percussion); Ute Wassermann (voice and whistles) and Phil Minton (voice