Tautology / 014
Matt Turner / cello
Leo Lab / CD074
Joachim Gies / reeds
Brian Allen / trombone
Solo recordings are one of those things which can be fantastic or dreadful depending on the approach taken. Some people appear to think that somebody out there wants to listen to an hour of them showing off various techniques or practicing new ones. Not these two: both Gies and Turner have done it before (recording solo, that it), and both choose to turn in CDs full of music rather than practice tapes.
Turner’s disk is one of those that just won’t stop jumping into your CD player. He characterises it as noise-based, and it certainly uses the extremes of the acoustic cello’s sonic possibilitieis, but the attention to detail here is wonderful and Turner’s discipline in sticking to an idea and developing it with care and attention is remarkable. We’ve heard him in a solo setting before (“The Mouse That Roared”, on Meniscus) and been impressed by this ability to focus but expressed reservations about a certain, well reservation in his playing. Not so here; the more extreme timbres, and perhaps a more relaxed atmosphere, enable him to really open up.
There are some pieces here which work in part because of the extreme limitations of the palette, like certain paintings done all in shades of blue (picasso, Kandinsky), or in contiguous areas of clashing colour (Klee). “Smoking Carnivore” is one of these, created mainly from the sound of the bow being scraped too hard and too slowly across the srtings. The resulting sound is perhaps similar to but not as radical as Hand Tammen’s “Styrofoam”, but the very decision to use a cello rather than something more suited to the production of these kinds of sounds allows the instrument’s more recognisable timbres to occasionally leak through. The overall effect is something like a brutal modernist painting done on top of something trivially pretty, the palimpsest of Romanticism (if you can pardon the pretensiousness for a moment) peering out from the patina of the contemporary. Nothing could be more postmodern or, frankly, more fun.
At times, Turner reminds this writer of Tammen in other ways, too; his approach to extreme and sometimes blackboard-scrapingly nasty timbres is similarly unflinching. But there are moments of real, if savage, beauty on this record. The two tracks featuring electric cello are a bit less raw and characterful, but they’re quite funky and oddly reminiscent of the opening of Gies’s solo outing.
Just as Turner sometimes turns to percussive, pulsing structures within which to make things happen, as on the bow-bouncing “Tap”, Gies opens with a circular-breathing piece composed on a bed of cyclic key-clicks above which long, trilling notes appear as if by magic. They appear, of course, when Gies increases air-pressure and turns the clicks into notes, but somehow the brain, which is used to hearing rhythms with melodic phrases superimposed over them, hears it that way instead. It’s clever and cool and instantly appealing.
Not everything here is so accessible, but it’s all of good quality. The music, as the title suggests, is often very quiet and rather subtle, but then so it Turner’s supposedly “noise”-based CD. There are differences, though — big, important differences. Turner and Gies both enjoy extended techniques, but the cellist allows them to inform his musical choices (which is a perfectly valid and, in his case, effective way of proceeding) while Gies gives the impression of being in full control deploying notes slowly and quietly into an enigmatic silence.
There are some technically astounding things on here — the things Gies can do with a trombone mouthpiece wedged into the neck of a tenor sax must be heard to be believed — but that’s not really the point. As with Turner, weird techniques may be the starting-point for some of these pieces but they certainly aren’t the end they aim at. Gies creates music of real vividness, and that’s what makes this CD extremely good.
Allen’s self-released CD-R may be less high-profile, but it reveals a lesser-known talent who may do bigger things. He’s something like an old-fashioned pit-orchestra trombonist, fond of slapstick effects and noises; he weaves them into a music which owes at least as much to brass band and folk music as it does to jazz.
The twenty tracks here are mainly short expositions of ideas. Allen’s technique isn’t entirely secure, but then people who go in search of this sort of record don’t expect perfection), and in fact this very quality of slight shakiness adds to the down-home feel. One hopes this isn’t patronising; Allen has a genuine love of the less prestigious traditions of his instrument, and that’s what gives this recording much of its character.
There are some real moments of musical imagination here, too; in the punningly-titled “Berne Baby Berne”, he takes a mournful, descending melody which could come from a spiritual or a colliery band and passes it through a series of perfectly logical transformations, an achievement which points, perhaps, to deeper things beyond the frankly very enjoyable fun and games. Richard Cochrane