Barre Phillips/György Kurtág jr.: Face à Face (ECM 2735)

Barre Phillips
György Kurtág jr.
Face à Face

Barre Phillips double bass
György Kurtág jr. live electronics
September 2020 – September 2021
Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
by Gérard de Haro, Manfred Eicher,
György Kurtág jr., and Barre Phillips
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 19, 2022

Although Barre Phillips and György Kurtág jr., respective virtuosos of the double bass and electronics, first collaborated by chance, one might not know it by the interlacing qualities of Face à Face. Each artist translates the other’s language in a borderless loop of communication, so that by the end we are one step closer to sharing their lexicon.

They begin in subterranean space, listening as if with the tympanal organs of a beetle to the stirrings of labyrinth makers. And maybe they never plant feet aboveground, more content to abandon the light for other forms of perception. Despite hints of the outside world in the sampled drums of “Two By Two” and the kalimba of “Across The Aisle,” our flesh always feels caught by something we cannot readily touch except in thought. Still, a feeling of tactility reigns.

The briefest excursions never reach two minutes, while the longest ones exceed only four. Among the latter, “Chosen Spindle” travels into backlit caves of memory, where seemingly infinite regressions flirt with the here and now.

Phillips is a sage of the bow, turning harmonies into shaded reveries that speak of decades leading to their emergence. In “Extended Circumstances,” he sings with mythical electricity in folds of cricket-like chatter. His pizzicato, too, moves vocally through the refractions of “Ruptured Air.” Kurtág plays his instrument (a practically biomechanical array of synthesizers and digital percussion) as a physical appendage, never letting go even when placing a shushing finger in the foreground. “Sharpen Your Eyes” is a remarkable example of his structural sensibilities, artfully suited to the bassist’s renderings of space. Their deepest integration takes form in the ironically titled “Stand Alone,” wherein mitochondrial anthems resound. Even “Forest Shouts” speaks in quiet streams of thought, each ripple extending a hand to pull us upstream to where it all began.

If asked to compare this to another album, I might nominate Heiner Goebbels’s Stifters Dinge, to which this may be heard as an electronic counterpart. Both are dreams awaiting visitors.

Barre Phillips: End To End (ECM 2575)

End To End

Barre Phillips
End To End

Barre Phillips double bass
Recorded March 2017, La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 7, 2018

When bassist Barre Phillips began his diaristic exploration of the double bass in 1968 with Journal Violone (the sequel to which found its way onto ECM in 1980), little did anyone know it would reach its destination half a century later. This album’s title, End To End, thus signals the closing of a circle filled by one of the instrument’s most stalwart innovators. Divided into three retrospectively titled sections, the program is reflective of both his ability to say so much with so little and of producer Manfred Eicher’s to understand the grander narrative of which that little is a part.

From the first pizzicato strains, it’s clear that Phillips is one who thinks not only through the bass, but also from it. Every note belongs. When he applies bow to strings, there’s a confident vulnerability to its pulse. It moves like windblown leaves with just enough sunlight peering through to bring a childhood memory into focus. His breathing, when audible, imbues glissandi with sentience. When not audible, it curls up as if in hibernation for melodic spring. In that dream state, it embraces the possibilities of dissonance, harmonics, and other subtly applied contacts. Part 4, in which he taps out a Morse code of mortality, is especially moving for its urgency. So, too, is his own quest for unspooling page after brilliant page, each awaiting the caress of post-production ink.

Inner Door
Phillips takes out a metaphorical microscope and through it shows his art to be a parthenogenetic wonder. Double stops resound with all the power of a mantra, and by their appearance activate particles of moonlight. Here his bow is the wand of a master storyteller, one whose choice of words is as organic as the imagery they describe. The rhythms of an aging body, creaking joints and all, reveal a greater force at work.

Outer Window
From that introversion we get the sunbeams of this final section. Although similar in spirit to what preceded it, it takes the most intimate turns yet, and by those paths draws an equation of visceral extroversion. Now the microscope is swapped for a telescope. He peers through it, only to see a twin figure with the exact same setup looking back at him. In those last moments, flesh dies and stars are born, never to be captured again by glass and curious regard.

Barre Phillips: For All It Is (JAPO 60003)

For All It Is

Barre Phillips
For All It Is

Barre Phillips bass
Palle Danielsson bass
Barry Guy bass
Jean-François Jenny-Clark bass
Stu Martin percussion
Recorded March 12, 1971 at Alster Film-Tonstudios, Hamburg
Engineer: Klaus Bornemann
Produced by Barre Phillips

This unusual meeting of minds pits bassists Barre Phillips (who also penned the proceedings), Palle Danielsson, Barry Guy, and Jean-François Jenny-Clark with percussionist Stu Martin in a tactile playoff with mixed results. It’s remarkable to think that four behemoths could sound so open, and so one shouldn’t be surprised to encounter a few tangles in “just 8.” For the most part, however, this introductory track maintains the clarity of separation that characterizes the album’s latter remainder. Either way, it’s a jaunty ride into an unprecedented sound-world. Martin anchors “whoop” with his engaging loops amid a menagerie of pizzicato signifiers. Along with “few too” it evokes a jack-in-the-box weeping for want of exposure. From that unrequited lament comes a bright promise, skewed by a hope that the world turns not even for itself. It’s a melancholic hope, to be sure, but hope nonetheless. Martin’s absence here makes the track an early standout: just the rocking of bows pressed into myriad shapes by insistent fingertips. “la palette” and “y en a” form another pair, taking a decidedly architectural approach to this most warped string quartet. Together, they form a cycle of destruction, pain, and healing.

The album only really comes together in the final two tracks. Where “dribble” proves an apt title for its dotted ritual, “y. m.” dances like an anonymous car alarm stripped of its batteries and given new acoustic life. The latter is a particularly complex, anchored piece that spits out some utterly brilliant turns of phrase.

For All It Is, for all it is, is above all an exercise in linguistics. Its cognates are familiar, even if the grammars are not. Although I’d likely recommend this one least out of Phillips’s otherwise astonishing ECM outings, for the completist it will be an intriguing blip on the radar of all four bassists’ careers.

Maneri/Phillips/Maneri: Angles of Repose (ECM 1862)

Angles of Repose

Joe Maneri alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet
Barre Phillips double-bass
Mat Maneri viola
Recorded May 2002, Chapelle Sainte Philomèe, Puget-Ville
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Produced by Barre Phillips and Steve Lake

When Joe and Mat Maneri and Barre Phillips materialized in the studio to record Tales of Rohnlief, the result was a magical recipe of microtonal blues and other off-the-beaten-path catharses. The session begged for a sequel, and its name is Angles of Repose. This time around, our synergistic trio throws rules into the air like pigeon feed for the small frame of life that is the cover photograph (incidentally, my favorite ECM sleeve/title combination in the entire catalogue) in the name of integrity.

Number One
Phillips is a grounding force in this opener, adding as much as he takes away and saving the sawdust, so to speak, from his whittling. Joe snakes his prophetic way through vocal and instrumental languages in a veritable feast of biological rumination, tempered by analysis in the immediacy of discovery.

Number Two
The internal machine may be vast, but its weak spot is infinitesimal. Father and son patty-cake the earth into submission. You can skitter and flitter all you want, but you’ll never find the path unless it finds you, whether gelled by time or fragmented by the violence of discovery.

Number Three
Joe cracks the fountain with faith and signs his nameless art with dots and dashes. If he seems winded, it’s only because he is the wind. Ameliorated by the corona of experience, he tempers his weapons with air, that they might never pierce the skin of any mortal fear, along which flounders the death of discovery.

Number Four
Twisting between thumb and fingers, the night rolls the city into a cigarette and smokes it until it sleeps. Every noteless space only makes it stronger. Butterflies and rhinoceri now share the same breath, fraught with the wonder of discovery.

Number Five
A duet for strings of spacious mind channels the wastes of contradiction and melts them into a mold. As the sculpture cools, it becomes a shadow. Its visage weeps invisibility. The hands of passersby inadvertently float through it, so that all they are left with is the fallacy of discovery.

Number Six
The cup has tipped, its contents spreading in a partially eclipsed circle. In this pool where broken mirrors float, we see the multiplicity of our genetic code’s sonority. Harmonics are the edges of fingernails on glass, and further the edge of that glass on sky. Resonant beauty briefly surfaces—a dolphin’s back—before plunging into the brine of discovery.

Number Seven
Blood begets blood begets the onlooker, whose wayfarer soul quivers with the loss of discovery.

Number Eight
The metamorphosis has occurred, not from man to insect but from insect to man, still carrying the language of its forbearers, dribbling into the cupped hands of discovery.

Number Nine
Birdsong becomes liquid mercury in the room-temperature stare of indifference. It is here where music is born, shedding truth for its simulacrum in the hopes that it will be consumed more quickly and forgotten on the way to the core. When our ears spread their wings, they need only lift one talon to leave their carrion. All the screeching and scratching accomplishes one thing: activation. We can feel in the air a vibrant disturbance, which brings its own instructions, blank as October sky. There is a beginning in every end, the anode to galactic circuits in search of a name. And if you lean in close enough, it may just whisper it to you, for it is the breath of discovery.

Number Ten
The whale scratched by Ahab’s spear swims for a song. Its balanced lyric of play guides the sonar true. It wakes you up just to tell you to go to sleep. This is the dream of discovery.

Three lines make not a braid, but a single unbreakable filament plugged directly into the kundalini of any listener willing to close the mind and open the body to the possibility of its activation. Yes, the album has its highlights (Numbers Five and Nine, I’d say, if you asked me), and contains Joe’s most heart-wrenching playing on record, but its lowlights are just as expertly realized, for in this sound-world there is no hierarchy, only the contemplating line that wraps around us as it goes along its way. If pinnacles have restless dreams, these are their soundtracks.

Maneri/Phillips/Maneri: Tales of Rohnlief (ECM 1678)

Tales of Rohnlief

Joe Maneri alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet, piano, voice
Barre Phillips double-bass
Mat Maneri electric 6-string and baritone violins
Recorded June 1998 at Hardstudios, Winterthur
Engineer: Martin Pearson
Produced by Steve Lake

Tales of Rohnlief is an exercise in recitation. Joe Maneri’s histrionics call out to grasslands and briny spray. He preaches at the edge of the world, where rocks cut like scissors through wrapping paper: only a push and not a squeeze. In his voice is all the landscape one needs to find purchase for the journey that follows. The voice expresses itself by way of throat and reed, a pitch-bent nightmare turned frosty and sweet. It pales into a spontaneous croak as Barre Phillips and Mat Maneri press their palms to an elaboration of surrender. And with that, these three uncannily attuned improvisers touch the sky with more sky. A break in the clouds reveals a backdrop of revelry.

“A Long Way From Home” feels like anything but, so intimate is its delivery. It whisks us through points of contact as familiar as our subcutaneous selves, and just as sensitive to the errant touch. Mewing cats trade places with stone idols flicking their tongues in the face of condemnation, licking away the possibility of failure as a hand wipes away condensation. Paltry rhyme schemes fail, however, to express the depth of this game of halos. We may, then, search for another method to the genius we now face. I propose that we turn our ears away from what is being told and focus rather on the telling itself. For if we look beyond titles like “When The Ship Went Down” and “The Aftermath,” neither of which help us despite the wonders of their contents, we realize that the inaugural voice has never left us. Its register curls a ghost’s hand and guides us through the gnarled lessons of “Bonewith” until, lo!, it casts its oracle shadow across the “Flaull Clon Sleare” and watches, silent, as we attempt to “Hold The Tiger” (a particularly brilliant pop-up). Watery yet never watered down, the song cackles. “The Field” is another notable mention, if not for its mournful qualities then for the color of its blood. Three dark and winding paths bring us to the tongue-tied destination of “Pilvetslednah.” Now that he’s shown us the yard, Joe welcomes us into his home, forever full of warmth.

There is so much sincerity in this music that it hurts.

Bley/Parker/Phillips: Sankt Gerold (ECM 1609)

Sankt Gerold

Paul Bley piano
Evan Parker tenor and soprano saxophones
Barre Phillips double-bass
Recorded April 1996, Monastery of Sankt Gerold
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Steve Lake

Time Will Tell was not only the title of ECM’s first document between pianist Paul Bley, saxophonist Evan Parker, and bassist Barre Phillips, but also a premonition realized live in the confines of Sankt Gerold, from which this follow-up borrows its own. The Austrian monastery has hosted many label recordings by groups such as the Hilliard Ensemble, and here the voices are just as distinct. These are musicians who learn how to fly by jumping from the tree, leaving us to gawk on the forest floor. The improvisation that ensues may be free, but from it we are not, buried by the sands of its ephemeral hourglass.

The twelve variations of Sankt Gerold lure us into enchanting freefall with deep, fluttering calls. In these beat the rhythms of worms and larvae, the breaths of a chrysalis, frozen yet somehow alive, hiding its transformations behind a scrim of bark. Steps share the floor with broom strokes and memories created in the moment. This time around the emphasis is as much on solo turns as on groupthink, with the most potent scoops of gravity from Bley, whose sleepwalks play like a kitten who gets only more tangled the more he tries to work through the yarn. Only here, escape would mean silence, a breaking of the line that otherwise holds us fast to the moment. Parker solders our attention with feats of sustained energy. In it we hear ourselves breaking and mending simultaneously, our souls rendered amorphous clots brought to life by embouchure and circular breathing. Philips embarks on the darkest prismatic sojourns, even if they are lit by creativity aflame. His is the meditative center of these infusions, the embryo of some percussive entity that sings as it beats. Together, the trio winds pathos-rich fuses, the ashes of which turn matches into oracles.

To speak of these tracks individually is like trying to extract one letter from the album’s Prussian cover: each needs the others to speak. This music throws open doors of insight to let in the night and day of its containment—beyond it not a room but an infinite body of which we hear one cell dividing. Like affirmation of an unrequited love, one finds its heart by getting lost in it.

Bley/Parker/Phillips: Time Will Tell (ECM 1537)

Time Will Tell

Paul Bley piano
Evan Parker tenor and soprano saxophones
Barre Phillips double-bass
Recorded January 1994 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Steve Lake

That pianist Paul Bley, reedman Evan Parker, and bassist Barre Phillips had never played as a group before flipping the coin of Time Will Tell matters little. Whether you call heads or tails, you win. The fact that Phillips had played with the two who hadn’t emerges through the sensitive approach he elicits from each. By the same token, one cannot simply say that he tempers what we might be expecting from two powerhouses of the free improv universe. Rather, he spotlights the tenderness already flowing within. The 17.5-minute “Poetic Justice” is proof positive: a meander through darkening trees that breeds not solemnity but a fitful stirring of forest creatures. Parker plays the role of itinerant blues musician mumbling in his sleep. Beyond his chosen paths, the directions are unlimited, their inks varicolored, their maps heavily creased. The trio’s aesthetic borders on beat poetry, pops and whispers taking the place of requisite snaps. With a twang and bend, even a Ravelian shade in the piano, the music soars “Above The Tree Line.” Parker’s soprano, lilting through starlight with immaculate care, forms the top of a pyramid grounded in Phillips’s sands. In this chamber within a chamber, the footsteps of the spontaneous way echo in complex reinforcement. “You Will, Oscar, You Will” is another origami pact of inspiration in which one can almost hear the memory of Paul Motian wanting to join. “Sprung” guides soprano down an ant line of activity, circularly breathing while festooned from galaxies pregnant with impending doom—all making for a sort of agitation that is strangely moving. “No Questions” brings more loveliness into the equation, blowing like a soft curtain through the sunlit room of Andrew Wyeth’s Chambered Nautilus, where only yearning may catch itself from time to time in the reflection of a burnished bedpost. “Vine Laces” and “Clawback” are both wondrous bursts from Parker, who finds respective company with Phillips in one and Bley in the other. “Marsh Tides” promises a smooth jazz number, but instead breaks its fall with measured insight, as honest as it is unplanned, and brings us into “Instance,” another excursion of extended technique between Parker and Phillips, the latter drawing strings of rusted light through “Burlesque.” Shades of late-night happenings end in an abrupt inhalation without repose.

Something grandly intimate is taking place here, for while there may not be much to hold on to in this sound-world of fleeting statements, we are left with an overwhelming amount to mull over. The title of this album is therefore an appropriate one, for only time will tell whether or not its sounds will find a secure place in your listening.

<< Lena Willemark/Ale Möller: Nordan (ECM 1536)
>> Azimuth: “How it was then…never again” (ECM 1538)

Barre Phillips: Aquarian Rain (ECM 1451)

Barre Phillips
Aquarian Rain: Music for bass, percussion and tape

Barre Phillips double-bass
Alain Joule percussion
Recorded May 1991 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Constant readers will by now be well aware of my Barre Phillips worship. It seems the man can do no wrong when left to his own devices under the auspices of my favorite label, and Aquarian Rain is no different. As a first, this time around the individual tracks go less by titles than by explanatory cues, for in the first, “Bridging,” we find connections already being made between disparate continents. Its guitar-like exuberance and melodic percussion (courtesy of Alain Joule) skirt arco territories toward stillness. “The Flow” brings about a sense of fluidity through electronic whispers, Joule’s vivid comments accentuating the bass’s inner core and painting its outer skin with observations. Phillips elicits a range of avian effects, from twittering concealed in foliage to lanky elegance of cranes and waterfowl, both hunting and in the rapture of a mating dance. “Ripples Edge” does indeed trace the water’s rim with its opening harmonics and navigates surface tensions like a water skater. Grammatical flair abounds in “Inbetween I and e.” Like a skilled poet who learns the rules only to break them with creative beauty, Phillips seems to mike a degrading clock from the inside. “Ebb” recesses into “Promenade de Memoire,” which like memory is a deeply rooted thrum torn by cries of the present. This intrusion of technology upon the emotional makes a fascinating blend of startling breakers and ponderous undertows. “Eddies,” along with “Early Tide,” puts me in mind of Andy Goldsworthy’s spinning wood in the documentary Working with Time, while “Water Shed” takes shelter from the oncoming storm by ruminating among tackle and life preservers until we get finally to the title track, which empties like a pipe into a pile of panned materials, finding its closure in the chatter of icicles.

Such astounding sound colors are difficult to describe and bear comprehension only through listening. Needless to say, they coalesce into yet another cerebral and perfectly realized episode in the Phillips drama. His is a highly melodic strain of the avant-garde. Not that you’ll be humming these tunes anytime soon, but they’ll certainly hum you.

<< Keith Jarrett: Bridge Of Light (ECM 1450 NS)
>> Heiner Goebbels: Hörstücke (ECM 1452-54)

Barre Phillips: Call me when you get there (ECM 1257)

Barre Phillips
Call me when you get there

Barre Phillips solo bass
Recorded February 1983 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I’ve said it before, but Barre Phillips is one of ECM’s brightest stars, though one would never know it by the solemnity of his genius. Glowing with a pale fire that can be drawn only in cosmic pigments, his sound-world on Call me when you get there throbs as if Michael Galasso and David Darling had fused into a collaborative quasar. The opening “Grants Pass” would seem to have been written in the margins of Steve Reich’s Different Trains, and works its gentle magic under the toenails of our foothold. Played on resonant multi-tracked instruments, this track stands as one of Phillips’s finest. Each shade of harmonic interplay forms a new glyph before our ears and eyes, proving once again just how cavernous the bass really is. This wistful trail leads us to the “Craggy Slope,” an uneven climb into heavily eroded terrain, occasionally punctuated by the fluid twang of the waters that wrought it into existence, and ending surprisingly in an almost baroque denouement. And on that edge we linger, dancing the slow-motion jig of “Amos Crowns Barn” before following the anonymous stirrings beyond “Pittmans Rock.” But when we jump, we land on “Highway 37,” caught in a stampede of tumbleweeds. Here, the bass sounds more like a ball of twine wound around a rubbery core, expanding into some looming paternal guitar, hunchbacked from old age. “Winslow Cavern” bubbles like the molten rock of a volcano before taking shape in the aptly titled “River Bend,” which plucks and scrapes its way through a serpentine journey. And as we take shelter in “The Cavern,” we discover that the only promise of life that awaits us outside its darkness is “Brewstertown 2,” a nightmarish backcountry town with an impending tornado etched into its background.

We can add this album to the modest yet potent shelf of solo bass recordings begun with Dave Holland’s as-yet-unsurpassed Emerald Tears. A masterpiece in the Phillips discography and one well worth the plunge for those who’ve yet to dare.

<< Charlie Mariano: Jyothi (ECM 1256)
>> Oregon: s/t (ECM 1258)