Fred Frith/Michel Doneda

Vand'Oeuvre 1440

Fred Frith & John Butcher

The Natural Order

Northern Spy Records NS 060

Four decades after he made his name in so-called AvantRock with the bands Henry Cow and the Art Bears, Sussex-born guitarist Fred Frith now spends more time immersed in experimental music as composition professor at the Bay area’s Mills College as well as in improvising situations with international associates. Nonpareil Frith improv, as has become evident over time, involves leveraging away from song and/or Rock influences while performing with no more than two or three associates.

Equivalent instances of this truism are these duo discs, recorded within eight months of one another, where the guitarist is partnered by either London-based John Butcher on soprano and tenor saxophone, or Toulouse’s Michel Doneda, who is equally dexterous on soprano and sopranino saxophones. Almost exactly the same age, both the British and the French reedist similarly but independently devised new approaches to the saxophone (s), moving beyond Free Jazz in Butcher’s case and New music in Doneda’s.

Ironically, perhaps because of some shared UK DNA, Butcher and Frith quickly reach a melodic intersection as they move though their 10 duets. At points their individual guitar flanges or reed smears sound almost identical as well. Double wave-form drones assimilated from reed bites and sniffs plus wide tonal flanges won’t cause anyone to confuse the duo with anything from David Sanborn and Earl Klugh, but as early as the revealingly titled “Dance First, Think Later” Frith picks out a simple melody. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t equal emphasis put on Rock-like guitar strums met with growled reed flutter tones on “Butterflies of Vertigo” or backwards echoing bottleneck-like stabs on “Faults of His Feet” that become almost sonically violent once the saxophonist snarls and peeps his way through a section of nearly endless circular breathing. But the crunching tremolo feedback and brittle overblowing isn’t as prominent on “Colour of an Eye Half Seen”, the session’s 13½-minute showpiece. Mixed among the power multiphonics are nasal undulations from the reedist plus guitar string scrub and what could be short-wave radio connections. By the conclusion however fleeting flashes of a semi-Caribbean lilt expand so that cheery theme echoes share space with penny-whistle like reed chirps and buoyant string reverb. Snatches of radio-broadcast male and female murmurs underlie “Accommodating the Mess”, the CD’s final track. But the multi-textural work that results as un-amplified strums, picks and scratches plus splintered sax growls are melded with the verbalizations create a monument to be admired not a mess that has to be accommodated.

Recorded a few months earlier in the Bay area, where The Natural Order was also recorded, the other CD is infused more with the quiet one expects from a Mass rather than any mess. Perhaps too because his horns are higher pitched than Butcher’s, Doneda’s usual response to Frith scratching and ringing frails focuses on pure air blowing and widening squeals. Differently focused than the Butcher-Frith duet, the French saxophonist’s frequent near-weightless twitters and whistles brings out the aggressiveness in Frith’s playing. As early as “Cut and Run”, the second track, the six-string takes on reverberating percussion qualities, including the sharpened downward picking associated with a tenor banjo. This high-energy onslaught eventually rouses Doneda to unleash a paroxysm of circularly breathed vibrations. With similar procedures intensifying throughout, a piece like “Back and Fill” is a face-off between sharpened guitar jerks defined in trebly string motions plus triple tonguing and fire-alarm-like cries from the reedist.

By the final “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” – no relation to the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler standard – the two are sonically well-matched and equally bellicose: Squeals, wind-tunnel-like echoes and split tones from the saxophonist animate the narrative before intersecting with electrified clanks and tolling strikes from the guitarist. It’s the aural equivalent of observing fluid motions of each boxer who are perfectly match in a bout. While the tunefulness here doesn’t approach the melodic undercurrents that occasionally peek through with Butcher, they’re still there. On “Absolute Bearing” for instance, the two work a protoplasmic merging of singular guitar riffs and squeezed mouthpiece kisses into a buoyantly conclusive note flurry that on Frith’s part briefly echoes The Twilight Zone theme.

No slumming Rock music dabbler, Frith’s expanding experiments have moved him into the first ranks of international improved music. These duo CDs offer further proof of his intrepid skills.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Natural: 1. That Unforgettable Line 2. Delirium Perhaps 3. Dance First, Think Later 4. Faults of His Feet 5. Colour of an Eye Half Seen 6. Turning Away in Time 7. The Welts, the Squeaks, the Belts, the Shrieks 8. Butterflies of Vertigo 9. Be Again, Be Again 10. Accommodating the Mess

Personnel: Natural: John Butcher (soprano and tenor saxophones) and Fred Frith (guitar)

Track Listing: Frith: 1. L’eau et le vent 2. Cut and Run 3. Allure au plus près 4. Going by the Board 5. Back and Fill 6. Boxing the Compass 7. Absolute Bearing 8. Point d’amure 9. The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Personnel: Frith: Michel Doneda (soprano and sopranino saxophones) and Fred Frith (guitar)