The Middle Distance
Another Timbre at24



Insubordinations insubdr 05

Not your parents’ piano duos, these prime slabs of first-class improv should banish any memories of the achievements of Albert Ammons & Pete Johnson, Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington or even Jaki Byard & Howard Riley. Moving one step beyond the Jazz and Free Jazz of these earlier keyboard meetings, both British pianists Chris Burn and Philip Thomas on The Middle Distance and the Swiss-French recital featuring Jacques Demierre and Johann Bourquenez utilize so many extended techniques and unique string-and-key variants in their joint narratives that at times the pure piano-ness of the instrument almost vanishes into abstraction. Additionally the polyphonic textures supplied by bassist Simon H. Fell on The Middle Distance, and from drummer Cyril Bondi and electronic treatment from D’incise on Piano(s), become as much part of the interface with the pianos as they exist on their own.

Appropriately reflecting the parenthetical title of Piano(s), that CD’s two most evocative tracks, “Tornade” and “Sous l’écorce”, demonstrate how the deconstructed interface Geneva-based D’incise and Bondi have developed since 2004 alters when merged with the strokes and slides of the two pianists. Demierre on his own is their foil on the three remaining tracks. More to the point, it’s a tribute to Besançon, France-born Bourquenez, who is approximately two decades younger than Demierre, that the wide-ranging and multiphonic interface with the others doesn’t suffer – or honestly sound that much different – when he’s the only keyboardist featured. And Demierre is a tough act to follow since the Swiss stylist is as comfortable working in notated music as improvisation; and creating soundscapes and installation as he is adding his voice to other sound experimenters such as saxophonist Urs Leimgruber and clarinetist/vocalist Isabelle Duthoit.

More restrained, yet also enlivened by the stops, slaps and clinks from Philip Thomas’ prepared piano, the five instant compositions on The Middle Distance also draw on the participants’ experience in notated and improvised music. Bassist Simon Fell is equally at home at the head of large orchestral-oriented ensembles as playing in Free Jazz combos with drummer Paul Hession. Pianist Chris Burn also deals with compositions and free forms, although he’s probably best-known for the many ensembles in which he and saxophonist John Butcher have been involved. The youthful – under 40 at least – UK equivalent to Bourquenez, is Sheffield-based Thomas, a senior lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, who is involved with the so-called classical experimental ensemble Apartment House as well as improvised sounds with saxophonist/bassoonist Mick Beck.

On this CD Fell is as much a musical collaborator as the two pianists – especially at those junctures where his pulsated pops, reverberating thumps and sul ponticello slices appear to mirror – or is it vice versa – the taut rubber-band like thwacks and knife-plucking-like scrapes from Thomas’ instrument. As those two vie to destabilize the sound field with angular pacing, Burn does his part with rubato patterns and voicing which emphasize the piano’s accepted versatility. At points he stomps out thick rumbles with the pedals; at others exposes swift kinetic runs from the keyboard; and at other junctures posits full-fledged arpeggios.

Should Fell advance the polyphonic themes with triple-stopping or scrubbed bow bouncing; or Thomas slap the objects resting on the prepared strings to create high-pitched harpsichord-like reverb or node extensions; Burn has an appropriate response. Rumbling low notes at one end of the keyboard, or simple clamorous textures from the other add a staccato urgency to simplistic “Chop Sticks”-like clinks. Overall, his sequences flow sympathetically and nestle harmonically among the others’ physical gestures.

The same creative connectivity is showcased on Piano(s). As a matter-of-fact when the first track runs into the second or the penultimate joins the final one, it’s impossible to determine that one piano has left the narrative. Perhaps the only clues arrive during those rare moments when sequences of high-classical, fantasia-like note cascades result from the intersection of 166 keys.

Other than that, the staccato portamento runs or doubled connective glissandi could come from either pianist – or both. While piano fireworks are on show, Bondi rolls, ruffs and pops different parts of his kit or accents the melodies with struts and slams. Plus the occasional wave-form flutter from D’incise makes its presence felt. Overall the sul tasto string sawing, strummed chords and understated key tinkles make the five tracks speed by, with the entire session blending into artful sound layering.

More than piano duos, these CDs are united in offering notable group creations.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Piano(s): 1. Tornade 2. Chants evades 3. Et puis partir 4. Presque mourir 5. Sous l’écorce

Personnel: Piano(s): Jacques Demierre, Johann Bourquenez* (piano) Cyril Bondi (drums and percussion) and D’incise (laptop and objects)

Track Listing: Middle: 1. Looking ahead, seeing nothing 2. Not with the fire in me now 3. All moved 4. Never knew such silence 5. Looking back, remembering little

Personnel: Middle: Chris Burn (piano); Philip Thomas (prepared piano) and Simon H Fell (bass)