Barre Phillips: Journal Violone II (ECM 1149)

 

Barre Phillips
Journal Violone II

Barre Phillips bass
John Surman soprano and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet, synthesizer
Aina Kemanis voice
Recorded June 1979 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Barre Phillips’s music always seems to be more about the obscuring than about what is being obscured. Such a description, I hope, does not merely practice what it preaches, but instead gives insight into his modus operandi. For this suite of six parts, ranging from organic to synthetic and back again, Phillips is joined by frequent collaborator John Surman and vocalist Aina Kemanis. The combination proves to be a formidable one. Phillips brings a delicate intensity to every cell of musical information he divides, especially in the slow buildup of Part III, while Surman threads not a few needles with the bevy of reeds at his disposal. He magnifies our deepest love with an earthy bass clarinet in Part IV. Here, Kemanis’s lilting themes dance with his distanced soprano, painting less jagged lines than she does in Part I. The Brian Eno-esque synths of the latter inject the album with fragrant warmth that Kemanis sustains beautifully with every syllable she sings. Part II harbors the deepest shadows, through which Phillips works his way toward the first lit street he can find. Part V is dedicated to Aquirax Aida, a.k.a. Aida Akira (間章), a music critic and producer deeply committed to free jazz artists like Phillips, leading down a sibilant path toward the final Part VI. This backwater fantasy bounces with the twang of a jaw harp, anchored by Surman’s organic woodwinds and brought home by Kumanis in smooth gradations.

To call any Phillips project “unique” is to commit the commonest of platitudes. His ability to draw a cello’s breath from a bass’s body is nothing short of astonishing. Every inch of his instrument seems to offer up a melody. Were this journal ever to materialize on paper, we would see that it had been written in an erratic but always legible sonic calligraphy.

Barre Phillips: Three Day Moon (ECM 1123)

 

Barre Phillips
Three Day Moon

Barre Phillips bass
Terje Rypdal guitar, guitar synthesizer, organ
Dieter Feichtner synthesizer
Trilok Gurtu tabla, percussion
Recorded March 1978 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I have said it before and I will say it again: Barre Phillips is one of ECM’s most underrecognized treasures. A maverick of the upright bass, his is a mind in which one revels getting lost. This follow-up to 1976’s Mountainscapes is the genesis to the latter’s messiah. From Dieter Feichtner’s opening synth in “A-i-a” and its attendant bass line, we are immediately engaged in a dialogue that is untranslatable except via the grace of its performance. Electric guitar accents from Terje Rypdal, who feels right at home here, billow backwards from the stratosphere into fissures of sonic earth. Rypdal swaps axe for organ in “Ms. P.,” unfurling a shimmering heat in which the breath of bass turns to steam. Even spacier touches await us in “La Folle” and “Ingulz-Buz.” Farther-reaching abstractions mesh into the neutral colors of electric guitar and bowed bass, respectively, throughout these intertidal interludes. “Brd” puts me in mind of Paul Schütze’s Stateless (especially the track “Cool Engines”): strung by a steady bass line and tabla, the latter courtesy of Trilok Gurtu, and Rypdal’s continued ploys, each bead reveals new insights with every listen. If Rypdal has been a key figure in the album’s narrative thus far, for the final “S. C. & W.” he morphs into a demigod. Backed by an insectile arpeggiator, alongside bombilations from bass, Rypdal gets tricky with the effects, at times lapsing into R2-D2-like articulations, but always with integrity. An emblematic closer.

Grandiose, cinematic, and meticulously constructed, Three Day Moon once more proves Phillips to be one of jazz’s best-kept secrets. The album also sports one of the most evocative ECM sleeves of the seventies, with sonic innards to match.

Barre Phillips: Mountainscapes (ECM 1076)

 

Barre Phillips
Mountainscapes

Barre Phillips bass
John Surman soprano and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet, synthesizer
Dieter Feichtner synthesizer
Stu Martin drums, synthesizer
John Abercrombie guitar
Recorded March 1976, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In his classic case study of Melanesian cargo cults, Mambu, anthropologist Kenelm Burridge introduced the concept of the myth-dream, which he reduces to “a series of themes, propositions, and problems which are to be found in myths, in dreams, in the half-lights of conversation, and in the emotional responses to a variety of actions, and questions asked.” According to Burridge, what makes any such cult successful is the immediacy with which its figurehead is able to articulate the myth-dream, unleashing a barely conscious longing to know and resolve that which lurks in our mental shadows. The resulting destabilization is a shared process of salvation. I dare to claim the music of Barre Phillips as providing that same function. It embodies a psychological imperative to bring into focus that which inhabits the half-light of our awareness, and fulfills that need through sound. The only difference is that, here, there is neither the promise of salvation nor of migration, but rather the simple need to soak in the immediate essence of wherever one may stand.

Mountainscapes is divided into eight parts of spirit-tugging magnificence, products of a mind that, though only cursorily represented on ECM, has done us a great service in recording his sounds for posterity. Mountainscape I hovers at the margins before unleashing a crackling free groove. The beautifully synthesized sounds and enthralling bass playing, not to mention an absolutely captivating soprano solo from reedman extraordinaire John Surman, give us a rich taste of resolution. It is an unexpected transition, one that jolts the heart into awareness every time. II is a quieter follow-up, enigmatic, peripheral. Like the myth-dream, it lingers just beyond our reach, baiting our desire to know it in full. III is an exquisite piece enhanced by organ and electronics. In IV, the bass becomes a huge rope hefted and swung like a mast cord in a seasoned shipmate’s hands before a saxophonic wind illuminates its sails. The drums never quite stand upright, crossing their feet instead in a continual swagger. V fades in with a synthesized arpeggio. Some sinuous bass notes and a stellar saxophone peek out from the woodwork here. The bass thrums like a groaning in the earth. Meanwhile, a synthesizer bubbles to the surface before fading into transfiguration. VI begins with a lavish wash of electronics embroidered by Phillips’s harmonic threads. It’s a short track, but for me the most effective on the album. VII begins with more pulchritudinous arpeggiation. The sax trails along, trying to place its footsteps in the same imprints as the bass trails not to far behind: the trio as mise-en-abyme. An electric guitar surprises us in the final part, wound by an enthralling sax to feverish heights and playing us out in a gentle finale.

In the end, this is music to be experienced rather than described. And so, I will stop trying.

Alfred Harth: This Earth! (ECM 1264)

 

Alfred Harth
This Earth!

Alfred Harth tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet
Paul Bley piano
Trilok Gurtu percussion
Maggie Nicols voice
Barre Phillips bass
Recorded May 1983, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This Earth! represents Alfred Harth’s second ECM appearance, supporting a stellar cast of musicians that includes Barre Phillips on bass, Paul Bley at the keys, Trilok Gurtu on percussion, and the inimitable Maggie Nicols doing what she loves. The words are by Vicky Scrivener, which could easily be a pen name for Nicols herself—such is the immediacy with which the words seem to pour from her lungs.

“Female Is The Sun” is the album’s anthem. Structured around a counterpoint of bass clarinet and pianistic asides, its skeleton comes to life through Nicols’s animations. Each verse hoists us deeper into the sky, until we begin to feel the heat of that “old gold woman” who oversees our every waking moment:

The earth’s hot eye reels
fenced
and groans before
vestal temperament

The piano and bass in “Relation To Light, Colour and Feeling” are like two adjacent houses. Between them, a sagging clothesline, from which wordless songs, doubled by sax, hang in the breeze of a balmy afternoon. Words await us at the end, each a folded cloth, a swaying branch, a chirping bird.

Luxurious mezzotints and shades
glowing wash of tones

A percussive introduction opens us to the fabulous spoken word performance of “Studying Walk, A Landscape.” Nicols carries us along with her unpretentious tugs, inscribing the scenery with tightened, almost saxophonic squeals. There is an urban whimsy to be found here, refreshing but also tinged by world-weary bitterness. Phillips also has a lovely solo in this whimsical track with heft and shape.

A wish, relief from a circle

In “Body & Mentation,” piano and bowed bass engage Harth’s tenor with bright energy. Gurtu spreads his palms wide through these aural veins, Harth tracing with a palmist’s care. Their interplay vacillates: a few steps from Gurtu, a few expulsions from Harth. Each move forward italicizes the piece’s sentence structure, closing on an elegiac statement from Bley.

Love’s tug –
our barge;
sweet clamorous tidings
on the unique
journey backwards
to progression.

“Energy: Blood/Air” reveals the album’s most porous textures. Over a tightly knit ostinato, Harth breathes life into Nicols, who skims a poem’s surface before slipping into protracted improvisation. Bley floats a light solo over our heads, gathered up amid a handful of bass.

Today she sits
in the angled skies…
lowering lids
at the blushing
earth.

The “Three Acts Of Recognition” that follow slip a contemplative card into this highly charged deck as Harth’s tender yet robust tenor ladles sound into our silence. Some well-chosen reverb lends a throated quality his song. Overtones mingle as piano chords lay down new ground for every self-aware step. A pause. Bley reaches into his instrument, plucking and strumming strings directly, while Harth spins molecules in the air. Another pause. We return to the keyboard, flowing through to the end.

Between the clean
and tender sheets
we’ll hear us out.

“Come Oekotopia” crackles in rain sticks and cymbals, drawing bass from the soil. Harth improvises over Phillips’s nimble strumming. His long-held note midway through is one of the album’s highlights. Percussive bells diffuse this energy. Nicols makes a phonemic cameo at the end.

The mind streams
to pulse
relinquishing

Her subsequent recitative in “Waves Of Being” offsets a gorgeous solo from Bley, who cannot help but raise his own voice in the flare of the moment. Phillips’s bass is bright and bleeds into Gurtu’s string of metal (gongs), wood (sticks), and exoskeletons (shells). Harth’s bass clarinet bubbles with finality, fading into a sustained pluck of piano strings.

Accapella
flourishing
descants…
Acoustically
tonic.

“Transformate, Transcend Tones and Images” shows Nicols in fine melodic form. As the album’s last image, seems to thrive at its center. Nicols adlibs the remainder, as if to dissolve these impressions just enough so that no one can claim them. “Woman in a violet tail-coat,” she sings, “blows her soul-blue sax on south bank.” But we never hear that sax. Instead, we get a string of unrecorded words:

…translate…
…transcend…
…transform…

leading us into the unknown discoveries of the journey ahead.

Harth is an attentive player who writes without erasing, sings without opening his mouth, exhales without hypocrisy. His notes are often shared on This Earth!, but he is never the mimic. Among this session’s band mates, Gurtu proves to be a particularly interesting choice. His cymbal-focused work adds the illusion of a full kit without the overbearing weight thereof. Bley and Phillips, on the other hand, are unmistakably present. Yet Nicols’s voice is the real poetry of the album. She transcends the words she sings even as she inhabits them, bringing genuine physicality to their contours.

Another out-of-print gem, its elusiveness makes it all the more visceral an experience once it finds its way to your turntable.

From left: Maggie Nicols, Alfred Harth, Paul Bley, Barre Phillips, Trilok Gurtu

(photo by Ralph Quinke)

Terje Rypdal: What Comes After (ECM 1031)

 

Terje Rypdal
What Comes After

Terje Rypdal guitars, flute
Barre Phillips basses
Jon Christensen percussion, organ
Erik Niord Larsen oboe, English horn
Sveinung Hovensjø electric bass
Recorded August 7/8, 1973 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Terje Rypdal’s What Comes After, his second for ECM as frontman, is more about what came before. An exquisite diversion from the dustier billows of his later work, it charts much of the same territory as its self-titled predecessor, only this time with a tighter supporting roster. Sveinung Hovensjø lays down the dominant bass line that is “Bend It,” an atmospheric 10-minute opener that lulls us into its nocturnal crawl. The bowed bass of Barre Phillips and Jon Christensen’s subtle drum work adorn long-form improvisations from Rypdal as he wrenches out an ever-changing dialogue from the repetitive core. “Yearning” reprises the sinewy oboe (played here by Erik Niord Larsen) of Rypdal’s self-titled effort and features him in a rare acoustic turn. The jangly percussion makes for a mystical, if all too brief, experience. The see-sawing melodies and tender bass solo of “Icing” extend this feeling of isolation and memory before the delicate rimshot of the title track slinks metronomically through Rypdal’s mounting ruminations. “Séjours” marks the oboe’s standout return in one of the album’s most thoroughly realized tracks, while “Back Of J.” leaves us with a sparse final word, Rypdal unplugged and unhurried.

Albums like this allow us to appreciate the ways in which artists grow. ECM’s consummate electric guitarist has worn many hats, and perhaps none so many as in his formative years. Here, he feeds off his surroundings, even as he strays in equally fruitful directions, always harboring an innate awareness of where he is grounded. A wonderful place to start for initiates and strangers alike.

Dave Holland/Barre Phillips: Music From Two Basses (ECM 1011)

Music From Two Basses

Dave Holland double-bass, violoncello
Barre Phillips double-bass
Recorded February 15, 1971 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineers: Kurt Rapp and Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If you know the work of Barre Phillips, Music From Two Basses will be familiar, if not tame, territory. The more recent Dave Holland fan, however, may be in for an intriguing surprise. Through a mounting cluster of clicks, flutters, scrapes, and plucks, two bassists who now seem to inhabit rather different ends of the improvisatory spectrum find common ground here, and the results are extraordinary.

“Improvised Piece I” is dry and cracked around the edges, while “Improvised Piece II” is more like the genesis of a dream. The technique in both is phenomenal, covering a wide range of extended gestures, but always with an emphasis on the miniscule. “Beans” (Phillips) introduces us to the album’s first composed material, and is an exquisite journey laced with drones and bowed harmonics. The heavily applied reverb adds a cool distance. It is a celestial moment in an otherwise terrestrial program, and gone too soon. “Raindrops” (Holland) brings us in the opposite direction, plummeting toward earth in a gentle precipitation. “May Be I Can Sing It For You” (Phillips) is the most straight-laced piece on the album, and therefore the shortest, while the vague “Just A Whisper” (Holland) brings us back into a more delightfully abstract interaction. “Song For Clare,” another Holland piece, closes the set on an affectionate note and leaves us hungry for more.

This is free jazz of the most intimate persuasion. These two bassists may be household names, but here we really get a profound early glimpse into the microcosmic hearts of their instruments. This is an engaging album from start to finish, and one that could easily fail in so many other hands as it skips, sings, and chortles its way through a surprisingly vast program. There are no grand sweeping gestures, no complete sentences, nothing lost or gained. A taxing listen for some, but sure to delight the rest with its whimsical, focused atmospheres.