Ned Rothenberg/Vladimir Volkov

Live at DOM - Duo Music for Nicolai Dmitriev


Unison Lines

NotTwo MW 834-2

Bare bones collaborations between one reed player and one bass player take on unusual overtones when one part of the duo is from the West and the other Eastern European. Still the sympathetic interaction of American reedist Ned Rothenberg and Russian double bassist Vladimir Volkov on one hand, and American alto saxophonist Keir Neuringer and acoustic bass guitarist Rafal Mazur from Krakow on the other, prove that cultural barriers are easily surmountable – at least where free music is concerned.

Each situation is distinctive however. Recorded in Moscow on the fifth anniversary of the death of concert promoter/producer Nicolai Dmitriev (1955-2004), Live at DOM’s 10 notable improvisations involve two veteran cross-border improvisers. There’s Rothenberg, who besides his work with the likes of bass guitarist Jerome Harris and pianist Denman Maroney stateside, has been a constant European visitor; and Moscow-based Volkov, who has worked with Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, German drummer Klaus Kugel and Lithuanian soprano saxophonist Petras Vysniauskas among many others.

Recorded in Poland, Unison Lines features nine improvisations or unison lines by two sound experimenters younger than Volkov and Rothenberg. Neuringer who has now relocated to New York, lived in Europe from 1999 until 2009, is part of another duo with Amsterdam-based turntablist DJ Sniff, and is involved with real-time electronics and notated music as well as improv. Mazur, who since 2000 has played an acoustic bass guitar built to his own specifications, studies Taoism, founded the ImproArt studio of improvisation in Krakow and has worked with French pianist Frédéric Blondy and Swiss violist Charlotte Hug.

In essence the Mazur and Neuringer CD is defined by its title. During the course of nine similarly named tracks the Polish-American team exposes a series of multiphonic tropes. Although for the most part the focus is on how far each instrument’s timbres can be pushed, Neuringer’s broken-chord harmonies and lively peeps, bites and tongue extensions take up the space that elsewhere would be reserved for another front-line instrument. Similarly, thick rasgueado, thumping twangs and flanged reverberations from Mazur’s bass guitar remove the need for any real-time percussionist. At times the players replicate each others’ strategies in layered counterpoint. For instance, the pumped and pulsating bass lines cleanly mix with the saxophone’s altissimo squeals, heavy breaths and dissonant wide vibrato.

One prime example of this occurs on “Unison Lines Eight”. Beginning with expressive glossolalia and accompanying vocalized screams from Neuringer, his variants soon embrace fire-engine-like shrills, aviary squawks and tongue slaps. Paralleling this, Mazur advances his part with andante and presto strumming that concentrates into a squirming drone. By the final variant, the saxophonist sounds as if he’s eviscerating the metal and splintering his reed as he plays, with the coda a dissonant, yet reverberating string shake from the bassist. “Unison Lines Five” finds both men moving through a series of chordal measures. This culminates in tongue slaps and split tones from one side which eventually encircle Mazur’s closely-miked string thudding and scale ascensions and slides, as the latter’s hand tapping and slurred fingering amplify every tone extension.

“Unison Lines Three” is more balladic, with wide-ranging vibrations from the reedist, that become both stentorian and tremolo as the track advances. In contrast, the bass guitarist’s frails and power chording remain percussive and grounded. Moving through an episode where jagged and dyspeptic timbres fly every which way as the sound accelerates in increments, the climax involves Neuringer’s sudden shift to breathy, neo-mainstream story-telling.

Volkov’s and Rothenberg’s story telling is more varied and polyphonic, considering that Rothenberg can interject sound into the narrative from his clarinet, bass clarinet or shakuhachi as well as his alto saxophone. Not that any single method of dealing with the themes predominates. For instance, “Toasted Bullets” and “In Order That”, two bass clarinet features, contrast sharply. On the first, Rothenberg builds an intermezzo that quickens squeaks, tongue slaps and reed bites into staccato flutter tonguing that evolves alongside Volkov’s neo-flat-picking, string slaps and stops. Eventually the aleatory showdown reaches a crescendo of well-modulated reed textures which perfectly complement bounces and pops from the bass.

On the other hand, “In Order That”, showcases irregular strategies in the form of the bassist’s wallops on his instrument’s wood and clarinet tones that mutate from shrill to chalumeau and back again. After sul tasto string motions and reed flutter-tonguing mirror each other, the pieces climaxes as almost pure abstraction. Alternating altissimo and subterranean tongue stops mix with tremolo shuffle bowing from Volkov.

Jaunty, hocketing timbres and down-to-earth polka-like rhythms appear on some of the duo’s more legato pieces, while other strategies are more obtuse and atonal. For instance yakkity-sax reed bites subdivide into smaller and smaller shrills as the bassist’s swelling sul ponticello runs match them. Shakuhachi inventions are treated in yet another manner. As Rothenberg’s wispy warbles become more connective, Volkov’s stroking becomes more abrasive with string pumps and twangs alternate with wood belly and waist smacks.

“Angel Among Thieves”, the penultimate track, is actually the finale before the encore. Pushing pastoral and legato clarinet tones into unstoppable multiphonics here, Rothenberg’s chirps remain legato until stretched to tremolo vibrations. Meanwhile the bassist slaps and rustles his strings rhythmically. Didactically the tune’s final section consists of nearly impermeable circular breathing.

Each of these CDs demonstrates how impressive and how varied reed and bass duets can be in the right hands – no matter their countries of origin.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live: 1. Double Wood 2. Coal Ya 3. Blue Chicken 4. Toasted Bullets 5. Little Odessa 6. Fax to Nippon 7. Fianchetto 8. In Order That 9. Angel Among Thieves 10. Stimulus Plan

Personnel: Live: Ned Rothenberg (alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet and shakuhachi) and Vladimir Volkov (bass)

Track Listing: Unison: 1. Unison Lines One 2. Unison Lines Two 3. Unison Lines Three 4. Unison Lines Four 5. Unison Lines Five 6. Unison Lines Six 7. Unison Lines Seven 8. Unison Lines Eight 9. Unison Lines Nine

Personnel: Unison: Keir Neuringer (alto saxophone) and Rafal Mazur (acoustic bass guitar)