Thollem/Robair

Trio Music Minus One (for Dennis Palmer)
Setola Di Maiale SM25650

Andrew Raffo Dewar

Interactions Quartet

Ratascan Records BRD 068

Bay-area based Gino Robair brings his percussion sets and electronics to these disparate sessions of experimental music, displaying why he has over the years been involved with fellow travelers as different as John Butcher, Nina Hagen and Terry Riley. As well, his role is crucially and individually demarcated in each instance,

Interactions Quartet lives up to its name. The CD’s 11 tracks are divided into two multi-part compositions that conflate background and foreground functions through spatially and graphically notated scores interpreted by four experienced improvisers. The others are guitarist John Shiurba, oboist/English hornist Kyle Bruckmann plus soprano saxophonist Andrew Raffo Dewar. An Argentinean-born polymath, Dewar played and studied with Anthony Braxton and Bill Dixon and now is a professor at the University of Alabama. The first five pieces are dedicated to Argentinean-American reedist/architect Guillermo Gregorio (b. 1941). The five “Pieces for Four Instruments” are dedicated to American composer Earle Brown (1926-2002), who also established his own notational systems.

Macabre as well as serendipitous Trio Music Minus One is also dedicated to a deceased player, Chattanooga, Tenn.-based synthesizer player Dennis Palmer (1957-2013), one-half of the Shaking Ray Levis. But the eight tracks featuring Robair and peripatetic Thollem (McDonas) Electric on Rhodes piano and analog effects are completely improvised. Constantly travelling, McDonas has played in North America and Europe with musicians ranging from William Parker and Pauline Oliveros to Mike Watt.

Encompassing aleatoric textures that frequently can’t be ascribed to any one instrument, this duo also lives up to its CD title. With microtones from McDonas’ electric keyboard and Robair’s extended percussion array frequently blurred and tangled by electronic oscillations, clicks, clanks, growls, pops, squeaks and explosions, the result could arise from either man, both or neither. Concurrently primitive and futuristic, acoustic and highly electric, the two expose what could be resonations from plain wood or milk bottles at one second; solid-state buzzes and tangled signal processing the next. Utilizing the Rhodes’ electronic properties, the keyboardist comes up with flanged glissandi that are as likely to arise from a guitar as an electric-piano. With a skein of energized excitement running through the program, the wordy “Adding to the challenge: they didn’t ____” finale uncouples itself from diamond-hard acoustic inferences to climax with enough wavering amplified tones that in Arena Rock days the result could have been ascribed to trio of keyboardist Stevie Winwood, guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker.

Nonetheless, as committed sound explorers not pop stars, McDonas and Robair cannily extend their creations with delicate percussion nicks and sizzles plus bubbling thrusts and key jabs. This temperate approach means that there’s reassuring satisfaction in following how low-energy development of themes, variations and recapitulations arise. Tracks such as “_____ charged _____ in space” and “_____ is the most _____ marker” imposingly express this sophisticated and methodical strategy.

If quivering stretches and undulating smears can become descriptive in either quiet or near deafening expressions on Trio Music Minus One, than the Interactions Quartet methodically depicts how skilled improvisers enliven what could be a mere compositional exercise. Unlike the other CD however, whose rhythm is related to Jazz-oriented swing or Rock-like beats, the impetus here is a near-rigid stop-start sway, with the players adding the needed elasticity.

Taking the compositions separately, “Interactions #1-6” comes across as profoundly group music, with progressions measured through harmonic convergence of the musicians’ use of particular techniques. Significantly while excitement is engendered by staccato sequences consisting of English-horn buzzing, spindly electric guitar twangs or lopping percussion clatters, the variations which stand out are more moderated. Both “Interactions #6” and “Interactions #1” are characterized by clean harmonies from the oboe that almost reach baroque-like sweetness, before being roughed up by clattering percussion, saxophone reed-bites and clinging electro-oscillations in the first case; or a rugged mixture of slurred finger picking, harsh sax vibrations and buzzing vibrations that appear to be switched on-and-off at will, in the second. The latter interaction is more memorable however since Bruckmann’s and Shiurba’s unison conclusion to “Interactions #6” sounds brittle and through composed. A simple animated melody propelled by vibraharp clanks from Robair provides proper staccato context for the harmonized horns at the end of “Interactions #1”.

In spite of the out-of-order numbering, the concluding “Interactions #1-6” brings a welcoming organic summation to the suite. Overtly thematic motifs ranging from percussion clatter and rebound, buoyant reed harmonies, (pre-recorded?) verbal murmurs plus billowing and quaking wave forms arise for greater or shorter periods. A satisfying resolution is set up by Robair’s mercurial vibe clanks and confirmed by blending an oboe wail with seeping and revolving electronic drones.

Constructed from 13 pages of invented, spatial notation the six modular parts of “Piece for Four Instruments” appear overtly fragmented and challengingly defiant. Relying mostly on contrapuntal and contrasting sequences in different instrumental combinations to make its point(s), effects tend to isolate rather than cement the sections. Considering inferences ranging from undifferentiated rubs and scrubs; rustles and sighs in different tempos and pitches; plus what could be circus-clown’s horn beeps, ligature-tearing reed stretches; even drum top and cymbal sizzles arise; much bonding isn’t present.

Happily by the time “C+D” comes along the droning ostinato which from the introduction has been bubbling beneath the surface, gathers enough strength to take on bagpipe-like reed tremolos aided by orchestral-style kettle-drumming. This creates a horn- connected theme comfortingly unaccented, yet with slight tonal and pitch variations. From that point on, harmonies from all the instruments bond, with just a touch of stridency. Finally a conclusive theme that’s half New music and half Braxton arises with reed kisses and a steady bass drum emphasis. If this “Piece” appears less assured than the previous suite, it was, after all, composed seven years earlier.

Taken as a whole, both CDs confirm Robair’s skills as well as those if the other players. Trio Music Minus One is a first-rate example of unpremeditated Free Music; while Interactions Quartet proves that a rapprochement between improvised and notated sounds can come off – at least most of the time.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Interactions: Interactions #1-6 (2009)/Dedicated to Guillermo Gregorio: 1. Interactions #2 2. Interactions #6. 3. Interactions 1 4. Interactions #1 5. Interactions #5 6. Interactions #4 Piece for Four Instruments (2002)/Dedicated to Earle Brown: 5. H+A+Solo 7. F+Solo 3 8. C+D 9. G 10. Solo I 11. E

Personnel: Interactions: Andrew Raffo Dewar (soprano saxophone); Kyle Bruckmann (oboe, English horn and analog electronics); John Shiurba (electric guitar) and Gino Robair (percussion and analog electronics)

Track Listing: Trio: 1. They needed more _____ on _____ , 2. which is _____ gas, 3. the densest and _____ moving 4. _____ charged _____ in space. 5. _____ is the most _____ marker 6. that distinguishes whether _____7/ _____ inside the _____ . 8. Adding to the challenge: they didn’t ____ .

Personnel: Trio: Thollem [McDonas] Electric (Rhodes piano and analog effects) and Gino Robair (percussion)