Berger / Blackwell
Karl Berger (vibes, balafon, darbuka), Edward Blackwell (drums)
Joe Fiedler (trombone), Jerome Harris (guitar), Pete McCann (guitar), Edward Ware (drums)
Just Play offers a truly delicious opportunity to relish seven duets by two legendary percussionists, recorded one spring night in New York State in 1976. These improvisations pair xylophones with membranophones to create throbbing rivers of sound which seem, like the West African music which inspired both men, to spin on forever. It’s as if the performers simply open a window at the beginning of each piece and close it at the end, such is the sense of movement around a still point in these hypnotic performances.
As ever, Blackwell has impeccable swing, but what’s really striking here is the funkiness of the playing, the way the accent always lands squarely on what might or might not be the “one”, a firm rhythmic base in this mainly metreless music. The CD sugests “File under: New Music/Free Jazz”, but this sounds unlike any kind of free jazz you might usually think of. Relaxed, swinging and bouncing, it’s a jam session from heaven, in audibly intimate surroundings. It was issued on vinyl in 1978 by a company called Quark, and it’s good to see it available again, and in such a reliable catalogue. Emanem are, after all, best known for their issues of music by British improvisors, especially John Stevens. This is a world away, but there are (tenuous) commonalities, and one hopes it will remain long in the catalogue.
To compare such a recording with that just released by Ed Ware on his own label would be fatuous and, anyway, it wouldn’t tell us much, but there’s a certain similarity of ethos which makes this writer imagine himself often wanting to hear the other of these records after hearing either one. There’s a similarly laid-back quality and sense of the rhythms rolling out in their own good time.
One suspects that Ware owes much to Blackwell, in fact, and his funky syncopations, cut with African riffs and polyrythms, strongly call the master to mind. The compositions here — for so there are, making these extremely different pieces structurally from those played by Blackwell and Berger — are mainly simple, and best when they are. “Reflections” is an example of a piece with too much on the charts; these guys aren’t Very Very Circus and oughtn’t to forget it. Still, though, the majority of the pieces here are sketches filled in in real time with verve and good humour.
The unusual line-up tends to highlight the guitarists rather than Fiedler, surprisingly enough, despite the fact that the two string players appear together only once and otherwise share out the tracks. Neither is particularly exciting here, but both are okay as long as they steer clear of the distortion pedal which, as is its wont, does sometimes make things go a little pear-shaped. Still, Harris has some nice moves and McCann knows how to string a solo together. Fiedler’s infrequent solos, on the other hand, are well worth listening for.
Overall, however, it’s not the individual contributions which stay with you. The trio sound is most important, and above all the pulsing rhythm maintained by Ware, who’s mixed somewhat louder than a drummer usually would be, and to good purpose. Richard Cochrane