Ariel Shibolet/Haggai Fershtman

Happiness for Things Unseen
Kadima Collective KCR 29

Tatsuya Nakatani/Michel Doneda

White Stone Black Lamp

Nakatani-Kobo Kobo-1

John Butcher & Gino Robair


Rastascan BRD 065

Even when it comes to experimental sounds, certain stricture exist, which if not challenged threaten to straightjacket improvisers into pre-determined concepts. Consequently for the indolent or casual listener any saxophone and percussion duo is often slotted within the parameters set up more than 35 years ago by Americans John Coltrane’s and Rahied Ali’s Energy Music on one hand and Briton’s Evan Parker’s and Paul Lytton’s reductionist Free Music on the other.

It’s a tribute to these discs that while two out of three lean towards either side of the continuum, each is inventive enough to circumvent historical precedents. That said, it should also be pointed out that the straightforward and vigorous work done by Israelis Ariel Shibolet on soprano saxophone and Haggai Fershtman on drums was clearly spawned by the forceful time and rhythm bending of Trane and Ali. Equally, it’s hard to imagine the harsh squeals, scrapes, scrubs and shrills that constitute Japanese-American percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani’s encounter with French saxophonist Michel Doneda if Parker and Lytton hadn’t pioneered languid improv with a core of steel many years previously.

Heir to the more reserved sonic tradition from the United Kingdom, despite only one partner, saxophonist John Butcher, being British, and the other, percussionist Gino Robair, American, the third duo also manages to push sound walls out even further on Aprophenia. That’s because the saxophonist’s technical mastery is extended still further by the addition of motors on two of the four tracks, while Robair’s manipulation of his unconventional percussion collection using such add-ons as e-bows, polystyrene and a different sort of motor, gives him many more textures which to tap – sometimes literally. Another distinguishing feature of this disc is that many of the timbres appear as if they could come from either instrument whether eviscerated from within Butcher’s horn or stroked and scuffed from parts of Robair’s kit. When motors are in use, however, the reedist’s distinctive overblowing becomes louder, more tremolo and almost mechanical, while Robair’s patterns encompass jackhammer-like pressure, woody splatters and bell-like pops.

All acoustic, the Robair-Butcher interface is subtler, if no less striking. Here though there are more tandem agitato cadences, almost undifferentiated until the saxophonist reveals himself when occasional vibrated breaths break up the linear tone as on “Jirble”. Later turning from solipsism, his reed-biting chirps rise to skyscraper-elevated shrills while Robair smacks blunt objects on his drum tops. “Fainéant” on the other hand, finds disconnected circular rumbles from Robair gradually converging into a quivering texture, which helps push Butcher’s pressurized vibrations towards dog whistle-like yelps.

This method of expanding extended techniques into the realm of microtonal refraction is also exhibited by Nakatani and Doneda, who like the other transatlantic duo of Butcher and Robair have been concertizing together for about a decade. Doneda plays soprano and sopranino saxophones, while Nakatani’s kit is minimal, usually consisting of a horizontal drum, unlathed cymbal which is also used to scrape the drum top, home-made curved bows and some miscellaneous bells and finger cymbals. White Stone Black Lamp is a superior example of the duo’s long-time strategies. For instance the reedist’s tonal expansions take in many fowl derivatives, from individual duck-like squeaks to a crowd of stratospheric aviary whistles. Furthermore corkscrew-like flutter tonguing plus circular breathing give his acoustic saxophone(s) an expanded palate close to signal processing. For his part, the percussionist’s techniques usually centre on bravura scrubs that simultaneously echo the ratcheting timbres of both skin and metal. Bow pressure, cymbal clatter and drum rolls create additional polyphony.

A track such as “Moon is a Nail” for example, is built on sharp, reverberating friction on the percussionist’s part, which propels unyielding cymbal chafing and bell pings that subsequently moderates the saxophonist’s segmented reed whines. By the climax distinguishing whether squeaks arise from strident cymbal smacks or nasal reed bites is impossible. Because of their basic pinched quality however, Doneda’s sour split tones are identifiable on “Circle Lamp”, as are Nakatani’s drum-skin patting and cymbal vibrations. Nonetheless before the ragged saxophone tones dissipate from needle-thin to nothingness, a spiccato bow squeak creates undulating polyrhythms that unite both players.

Tellingly, such is the pace at which experimental music changes, that Shibolet’s and Fershtman’s 10 improvisations sound nearly traditional. Both Tel Aviv-based, the drummer has performed with children in schools and played with local avant-gardists such as bassist Jean Claude Jones and saxophonist Albert Berger. More travelled, the saxophonist has given concerts in Germany and the United States and played with musicians such as French bassist Joëlle Léandre and American pianist Scott R. Looney.

During the course of this CD, recorded live at two Tel Aviv performance spaces, the Israelis stretch the limits of their respective instruments’ techniques. Although their playing is more closely related to Energy Music than that of the duos on the other two discs, hard, fast phrasing isn’t their only stock in trade. A piece such as “Live at ‘The Box’ 2”, for instance, finds Shibolet using an intense singular tone on his soprano that reflects back into itself as he plays. As Shibolet involves himself in circular-breathed multiphonics, Fershtman’s response is couched in press rolls, ruffs and hollow cymbal clattering.

In a similar fashion, on “A Place for Cy Twombly” – one of the many tunes on three-related CDs the saxophonist has created honoring the late American painter’s art – Shibolet’s sound is staccato and sibilant. Whistling and buzzing split tones become watery as they imply bubbling circular patterns. Meanwhile the drummers scrapes his drums’ sides and rumbles stentorian pulses from their tops while shaking what sounds like a rubber hose in the air.

Nonetheless, the duo’s tougher and more pugnacious side is given an extended showcase on the more-than-27-minute first track. As Fershtman constant phrase-making have him come across as a kosher Elvin Jones, due to cross sticking, press rolls and frequent ruffs, Shibolet too goes through a variety of exercises that put him firmly in the Trane camp. Breaking away from parallel improvisation with drummer, the reedist squeals a bagpipe chanter-like tone which swells until pitch vibrations and note flurries are packed into each altissimo cry. Expanding the narrative so that note stuttering create sequences of split-tone reflux and strained slurs at several speeds and intensities, Shibolet only downshifts slightly near the end to meet the drummer’s ruffs, clatters and press rolls. Finally as Fershtman directly smacks his bass drum and toms, the saxophonist moulds a collection of reed bites into a stretched final riff.

Surprisingly the five tunes which close out the CD balance both reductionist Free Music and harder Energy Music – especially in the saxophonist’s playing. At times Shibolet’s ney-like tone renders multiphonic timbres in a single breath; elsewhere his output turns granular and congested. In most cases, his reed quivers hang in the air long after he stops playing.

No matter which saxophone-drum history you think each of these duos suggest, all have added enough originality to their programs to impress.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Apophenia: 1. Knabble* 2. Fainéant 3. Jirble 4. Camorra*

Personnel: Apophenia: John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones plus motors*) and Gino Robair (energized surfaces)

Track Listing: White: 1. You Come With All The Insects 2. Circle Lamp 3. Butterfly Hesitant 4. Fagot 5. Moon Is A Nail 6. The Bee Is Short

Personnel: White: Michel Doneda (soprano and sopranino saxophones) and Tatsuya Nakatani (percussion)

Track Listing: Happiness: 1. Live at “The Box” 1 2. Live at “The Box” 2 3. A Place for Cy Twombly 4. Complete Darkness/bright light. 5. Requiem 6. Live at “Levontin7” 7. Movement 1 8. Movement 2 9. Movement 310. Movement 4

Personnel: Happiness: Ariel Shibolet (soprano saxophone) and Haggai Fershtman (drums)