Martine Altenburger/John Russell

Duet
Another Timbre at 27

Exquisitely shaped, this disc offers up more than three-quarters of an hour of untrammeled improvisation demonstrating that in the right hands, a sound meeting can be both profound and unpretentious.

Recorded at Jarny’s Musique en Mouvment festival, the cello-guitar twosome manages to mix an appropriate soupçon of legato pacing in with the staccato and sharply pointed extensions to ensure that exaggerated timbres don’t predominate. Nonetheless there is enough rubato, if understated, movement from the two, singly or together, that the piece doesn’t become placid or soporific.

A portion of this balanced spikiness is that the performing partners come to Free Music from different circumstances. Cellist Martine Altenburger, a Toulouse resident, is involved in multi-media creations and experimental notated music, as well as close collaborations with such French sound explorers as saxophonist Michel Doneda and percussionist Lê Quan Ninh, who coincidentally mastered this session. On the other hand, London-based guitarist John Russell has been a hard-core improviser almost from the beginnings of his career with his playing partners extending from fellow Brits like pianist Chris Burn to German saxophonist Stefan Keune.

On Duet, Russell’s bristly and resonating picking is often shadowed by sul tasto rubbing, vibrating notes and methodical string-stopping from Altenburger. If her processes also include interludes of legato, almost impressionistic sprawl, then she makes up for that with bow bottom taps on the body of her cello and chunky string-stopping. These node augmentations are not only noteworthy on their own, but also subtly reinforce those episodes from the guitarist when his metronomic strumming reaches a point where he’s violently stroking the pick guard and wood rather than the strings.

Conversely when the cellist pauses and shuffle bows to near inaudibility, it’s Russell’s dramatic fills and near-rococo fingering which moves the layered interaction from minimalist movements to more open-ended creations that bring in chord extensions and partials. Luckily these brief pseudo-ethereal moments are few and far between, as are those interludes when the guitarist appears to be spraying and splashing discordant asides or Altenburger’s kinetic pulsing almost takes on wood-splitting properties.

By the instant composition’s final variant, the tone and pace of the interactive interlude changes. Rapidly spiraling lines from both players are expressed individually at the same time as spiccato thumps from Altenburger and clip-clopping frails from the guitarist are superseded by a folksy air from Russell matched by long-lined cello sprawls. Simultaneously hard-paced and discordant the measures vibrate themselves into intermittent textures and a concluding rapprochement.

Banishing memories of Jazz string duos or chamber music duets, Altenburger and Russell demonstrate how precarious and instantaneous meetings can, with skill and luck. be transformed into memorable improvisations.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Duet 1 2. Duet 2 3. Duet 3 4. Duet 4 5. Duet 5

Personnel: John Russell (guitar) and Martine Altenburger (cello)