Benedict Taylor/Anton Mobin

Close/Quarters
New Wave of Jazz nwoj 0021

Karl Berger-Jason Kao Hwang

Conjure

True Sound Recordings TS 02

One if the defining instruments in so-called classical music as well as detouring into traditional American country music, the violin – and its deeper-voiced sibling the viola – was rarely featured in a Jazz context early on. Iconoclasts like Stuff Smith and Joe Venuti may have been harbingers of the less straight-laced atmosphere that allowed for the ascendency of fiddle archetypes such as Leroy Jenkins and Billy Bang to have the freedom to experiment, but it took the latitude of free improvisation to give string players proper forums.

Contemporary string players’ versatility and background is recognized on these duo sessions. American violinist/violist Jason Kao Hwang, who has Jazz experience and has worked with the likes of Steve Swell and Francis Wong among many others, is in an extended experimental mode on Conjure, whereas UK violist Benedict Taylor, whose past associates range from Paul Dunmall to the London Sinfonietta Collective, is more involved with aleatory and electronic sounds. The dialogues are also influenced by the partners. Hwang’s is German-American pianist/vibraphonist Karl Berger, an associate of Ornette Coleman who was a founder of the Creative Music Studio. Meanwhile Taylor works with French composer Anton Mobin and the latter’s so-called “prepared chamber” a sonic box whose distinctive sounds are created by the manipulation of ordered objects, fragmented and amplified by magnetic pickups and piezzo-electric contact microphones.

Essentially what that means during the duo’s seven-track CD is that Taylor’s strained spiccato runs or stretched sul ponticello cries frequently judder alongside or top scratches, gongs, clunks or rumbles from Mobin self-constructed box. Usually the upshot is unwonted as well as unique; with on “Lay in the Low” for instance, broadly resonant machine-like burbles underline broken chord slides and slathers from the fiddler. As the nearly unending “prepared chamber” thumps move downward they meet up with playful string swipes that direct both to rolling fades. Or there is “Minimal Muck”, where a pop like that from a wine bottle cork accelerates to a percussion-inflected base and later forward-moving machine oscillations. All the while, in broken counterpoint, Taylor is rippling sul tasto motions from his detuned strings as his sharpened strokes seem to access the viola’s innards as well. Ending with Mobin’s machine-approximating textures moving among passenger plane take off and deep sea diving rumbles on “Clock Rider”, the violist’s climatic riposte comes with a speedy blur that manages to combine shrill sul tasto runs and a stimulating ringing finale.

More minimalist than that on the other CD, Hwang’s playing encompasses arco passages that could narrowly fit within the romantic tradition and pizzicato plucks that could be created by a mandolin in a Bluegrass band. But these detours never waver from the improvisational nucleus. With Berger’s sonic attributes self-effacing and measured on either of his instruments, the fiddler has plenty of latitude to express extended instrumental techniques. “Below Zero” for instance, which is warmer than its title would indicate, is notable for how the lead seamless slithers from one player to the other. Additionally, unexpected timbres are illuminated when Berger smacks hearty reverberations from the vibes’ metal bars and Hwang produces near cello-pitched sweeps from the viola. Hwang’s high-pitched slurred fingering also start Vanishing Roots” with pizzicato plucks as supple as guitar strokes. Meantime Berger’s hunt-and-peck keyboard strategy evolves to glissandi, that when joined by the violist’s touch, becomes a recital-ready melody. That doesn’t mean that post-modern motifs aren’t involved. The concluding “Arise” features low-pitched, moderato keyboard sweeps evolving in counterpoint to Hwang’s string crackles and wood-splitting suggestions that push his exposition to high-strung peeps.

The notable contrast between propelled pressure and tranquil tractability is most obvious on the extended “Water Finds Water” as the viola’s strokes are driven to multiphonics at the same time as Berger’s vibraphone harmonies evolve in a straight line. Eventually the corrosive string pressure settles into a groove decorated by sparkles and shimmies from vibrating metal bars.

Propelled in divergent fashion, each of these CDs makes a strong case for the violin-viola’s inclusion in improvised music’s evolution.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Conjure: 1. Prophecy 2. Silhouettes 3. Beyond Reach 4. Vanishing Roots 5. Faith 6. Below Zero 7. Water Finds Water 8. Arise

Personnel: Conjure: Jason Kao Hwang (violin and viola) and Karl Berger (piano and vibraphone)

Track Listing: Close: 1. For an Old Man 2. Minimal Muck 3. The Lumber Guy 4. Lay in the Low 5. Slicing Ups 6. Love Song 7. Clock Rider

Personnel: Close: Benedict Taylor (viola) and Anton Mobin (prepared chamber)