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burkhard beins | rhodri davies | mark wastell | the sealed knot | helene breschand | michel doneda | gerald zbinden | l’intense

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Beins / Davies / Wastell

The Sealed Knot

Confront: FRONT06

Burkhard Beins: drums
Rhodri Davies: harp
Mark Wastell: cello

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Breschand / Doneda / Zbinden

L’Intense

For4Ears: CD1138

Helene Breschand: harp
Michel Doneda: soprano sax
Gerald Zbinden: electric guitar

Two trios representing the younger generation of chamber improvisers in London, Berlin and Paris and both, coincidentally, featuring harpists who take their instrument out of its traditional role as prettifyer, index of the Romantic and the romantic alike, a veritable Liberace of an instrument.

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Mark Wastell

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Rhodri Davies

Davies and Wastell have been working together for some years now, in various combinations but most visibly in the trio IST with Simon H Fell. Those who know IST’s music will find much common ground in this single, twenty-minute piece (the CD is priced at 6GBP), although the addition of Beins and removal of Fell has obvious consequences. The percussionist has the usual range of objects — clanking chains, rattles and so on — which improv drummers need these days, and he never sounds like a conventional kit player. And Fell is hardly a straight notes man, playing a lot with textures, percussive sounds, scrapes and squeaks and thumps so, all in all, you might expect this trio to be business as usual for Davies and Wastell.

Yet still, there are big differences in the group dynamic here, and it works quite differently. IST tend to fill their space with multi-layered sound, however, quietly they might work; the trio with Beins uses silence and near-silence far more, sounding more clearly than usual the tribute to Cage which is there in everything the string players seem to do. Not that this music has long silences, nor that not much is going on here. This is certainly not minimal or lowercase music, not really. It’s just that there’s a great sense of open space here, and a willingness — shared with IST, but more pronounced here — to do not to much, and to let the sounds be themselves. That might be down to the wonderfully wet acoustic of the All Saints Church in which this was recorded, but more likely it’s Beins’s impact on the group coming through.

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Burkhard Beins

For those who don’t know their IST and are hazy on what all of this means, here we have a trio of improvisors taking a lead from Webern and, to a lesser extent, the post-Webern school, weaving understated but very active music using almost exclusively “extended” techniques rather than straight notes-playing. Actually, there’s some lovely note-based music about ten minutes in, but it doesn’t last long. Nothing does; this music is extremely dynamic, although it’s easy to be fooled by the relatively low volumes. As with almost everything these guys do, this is worth seeking out, and Confront, a very small-scale label run by Wastell, is a project worth supporting.

As for the harpists, well, Davies very rarely sounds as if he’s playing a harp at all; Breschand takes the traditional sound of the instrument as her starting-point rather than as something to be annihilated, playing “straight” for most of this disk. One can’t say the same for Doneda, a player who becomes more impressive with every release, notwithstanding some rather negative things this writer had to say about his Anatomie des Clefs a year ago. The saxophonist has an extreme approach to his instrument, and often it’s hard to tell what is hard-won technique and what is accident, but his ability to work in small-group settings is extraordinary.

Here, his gargling, strangulated voice is pitched between Breschand’s thoughtful atonalities on the one hand and the slightly muffled roar of Zbinden’s axe on the other. Zbinden plays some smart stuff, but it’s his tendency to shroud it in a haze of distortion which is initially off-putting but ultimately rather satisfying. He becomes something of a force of nature, a lightening-storm backdrop to the strange meeting of Breschand and Doneda.

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Helene Breschand

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Michel Doneda

Helene Breschand / Michel Doneda

Indeed, it’s surprising that these three have anything to say to one another at all, but they collaborate with considerable verve. Sometimes the easy option is taken — “Espace Champs” is an extended piece of mood-music which sounds like it came straight off the score to some Hollywood sci-fi movie — but even then the results are very pleasant. When the group really gets going, Doneda comes on like Evan Parker, what with his circular breathing and complicated timbral distortions, pushing the later further than Parker ever has, which is no slur on Parker and which is, indeed, part of the reason why Doneda can be hit-and-miss.

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Gerald Zbinden

At those times, when Doneda’s really hitting, Breschand plays almost like a double bass and Zbinden like a drummer; it’s hard to explain how, exactly, but this trio of strange bedfellows turns into a free jazz trio and really cooks it up. One couldn’t expect them to do it all the time, naturally, especially since this group isn’t a jazz trio and their music superficially has a great deal in common with the refried high Modernism of Beins / Wastell / Davies. Yet there it is: the second half of “Temps Nodal” is a blistering fireball of pure New York loft preacher-man wailing, or rather a simulacrum of it, blasted into the 21st century and the centre of postmodernism with all its energy and complexity very much intact. This is a patchy record, but the poor patches are good, and the good patches are truly excellent. Richard Cochrane

Photos: Mark Wastell / Rhodri Davies / Michel Doneda by Peter Gannushkin / downtownmusic.net