Fred Lonberg-Holm/Nick Stephens

Attic Antics
Loose Toque LT 023

Fred Lonberg-Holm/Piotr Mełech

Coarse Day

MultiKulti Project MP1014

By Ken Waxman

Chicago’s, or is it improvised music’s, busiest cellist, Fred Lonberg-Holm travels overseas with these CDs for timbre intermingling with a Polish clarinetist and a British bass player respectively. Yet it’s a tribute to his mercurial versatility that while each disc pushes the limits of the instruments’ expected qualities, neither wanders into the realm of unidentifiable textures.

The challenge may be more pronounced on Attic Antics with London-based bassist Nick Stephens however, since both players must produce all sonic coloration from vibrating strings. The task is made doubly risky since the players involved eschew time keeping and melodies for experimentation. Luckily the cellist has a long history of close collaborations with bassists, most notably fellow Chicagoans Jason Roebke and Kent Kessler. Over a 30-year career meanwhile, Stephens has played with everyone from the British drummer John Stevens to Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad. The cellist’s other first-time meeting involves clarinettist Piotr Mełech from Poznan. The reedist has worked with outside stylists – in both senses of the word – like Australian bassist Clayton Thomas, while Lonberg-Holm’s list of reed partners starts with Joe McPhee and Peter Brötzmann and goes on from there.

During Coarse Day’s eight tracks however geographic separation melts away along with bar lines, compositional motifs and predetermined arrangements. Sequences are staccato or legato, with a few even extruding a bluesy overlay. Most common are those tracks such as “Tangle of Loops”, which rather than dealing with repetitive runs, work up to agitated counterpoint. As Mełech’s tongue stutters express extensions and partials as well as initial reed tones, Lonberg-Holm use electronics to make his responses jitter contrapuntally. When the clarinetist propels a pedal-point rhythm the cellist responds with scrubbed, higher-pitched crackles. In contrast, when for instance Mełech creates mid-range echoes on “Slit in Slot”, Lonberg-Holm’s arpeggiated twangs roughen the interface, forcing the reedist to augment his sound to irregular vibrations. Eventually string pumps join in unison with reed bites.

Perhaps the most descriptive track is “Layer Seven”. This sequence unites contrapuntal cries and intense, foreshortened squeaks on the clarinetist’s part with Lonberg-Holm’s powerful string clutches, and skittering turns which encompass electronically processed reverb and flanges. By its climax Mełech’s multiphonic blows create percussive rhythms, while the cellist colors the proceedings with electronics-based motions and clipped runs.

Electronics are eschewed on Attic Antics’ three lengthy selections, and it’s always clear that it’s stringed instruments that are playing. Secondly, while both men stretch and vibrate many strings, the bassist usually plays pizzicato and the cellist arco. What ends up transpiring, as in the sonorous pulsations which define “Tantric Ants”, is that Lonberg-Holm’s lines are sharper and more spiccato while Stevens’ sweeps are more magisterial and relaxed. Also his double stopping frequently works in tandem with the cellist’s col legno bounces.

On the nearly 19-minute title track the bassist’s tremolo pops and rubs contrast markedly with Lonberg-Holm’s narrowed and abrasive lines. The piece moves along in sequences as timbres from each player migrate from foreground to background and vice versa as both try out different phrasing. For example the bassist may emphasize a series of foreshortened pitch-slides which are soon joined by agitated stroking from the cellist. Other times the sonic differences are lessened as subtle string stretches turn to harmonic convergence and suggestions of lyricism. The contrast remains comprehensive however, since the duet is contrapuntal not bonding. Lonberg-Holm continues his strident shrilling with angled bow work until the finale; while Stevens more measured plucks encompass twangs and strums.

These memorable duet discs are valuable additions to the cellist’s already burgeoning discography.

Tracks: Coarse: Cloudburst; Slit in Slot; Blunt; Tangle of Loops; Layer Seven; Finger on the Trigger; Mildrew Gourmets; How are you, Mr. Loony?

Personnel: Coarse: Piotr Mełech; clarinet and bass clarinet; Fred Lonberg-Holm: cello and electronics

Tracks: Attic: Attic Antics; Antique Addicts; Tantric Ants

Personnel: Attic: Fred Lonberg-Holm: cello; Nick Stephens: bass

—For New York City Jazz Record April 2012