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Reviews of Recent Recordings

Martine Altenburger + John Russell
Another Timbre at27

John Russell
Psi 10.06

John Russell brings a sense of balance to his improvisations, an ability to both generate material independently and to play with other musicians in a strikingly interactive way. It should be a necessary quality for improvisers, but only a few possess it to the guitarist’s degree, and his work should be far more widely known than it seems to be.

As a one-time student of Derek Bailey, as a devotee of pre-WWII acoustic archtops, and as a master of harmonics, Russell has inevitably been compared to Bailey, for many the literally definitive free-improvising guitarist. Such comparisons are easy, though, and they serve only to prevent actually hearing what rare and original music Russell achieves. Risking further over-simplification, the two musicians may actually be opposite: where Bailey disrupted the idiomatic gesture, Russell sometimes invokes it; where Bailey practiced discontinuity, Russell can create alternative order. While Bailey preferred the fresh encounter, Russell has established a number of long-term playing relationships, including those with pianist Chris Burn, drummer Roger Turner and the saxophonists John Butcher, Stefan Keune, and Evan Parker.    

Eschewing the electric guitar completely, Russell has become a master of acoustic sonority, matching timbres with pipa and cello, approaching even a koto for sustained resonance. His use of harmonics (the technique of touching a string without depressing it and picking the string mid-way between the fingered harmonic and the bridge for maximum articulation, creating ringing bell-like tones) is immediately notable and genuinely significant. In a sense, Russell is a “natural” guitarist, one of those musicians who has a symbiotic relationship with the instrument. Just as Wes Montgomery’s left hand would circulate around the fretboard, always moving across the strings and up and around the neck, Russell creates a fluid movement with the instrument. Here the use of harmonics is central: for Russell the fingerboard is apparently multiple. He finds new tones in the same place, new relationships in the same gesture. A second trip across the fingerboard is always a different excursion. The harmonic is a transparent sound: silence and ambient sound pass through it. It accounts for Russell’s unhurried pace and his sense of order, even when he’s playing fast: there’s simply so much going on.

Hyste is a series of solo improvisations recorded in St. Peter’s Church in Whitstable, further emphasizing the resonant brilliance and metallic clarity of Russell’s playing. That sense of place is multiply extended with titles in the Kentish dialect of Russell’s childhood. One title, ”Alleycumfree,” signifies a non-existent place, adding the site of absence to this multiply placed music. At 31’24”, “Alleycumfree” is longer than the other two pieces combined and it’s an extraordinary work. Improvising freely, Russell establishes something very much like a multiply-themed sonata, taking sudden new excursions, then circling back to renegotiate some previous terrain, shifting rhythms and extending and transforming phrases. At times, a sonority or interval here may suggest roots in blues, suggestions that Russell uses in the freest way imaginable, not obliterating or indulging the trace, but moving on. There’a distinct minor key feel that informs the percussive opening of “The Folkestone Girls,” but it seems to develop multiply, moving inside the sounds themselves and away from continuous tonal identities.

The CD with cellist Martine Altenburger is called Duet, and the title might be considered definitive rather than simply literal. It has as little verbal description as might be appended. It’s divided into five parts, numbered 1 to 5, with the explanatory note that “track divisions are only for the listener’s convenience.” The poet John Keats once described the quality of “negative capability” as the ability to live without anxiety in the midst of uncertainty. It’s a quality Russell seems to possess and he conjoins it with rare receptivity. In his past duets with Roger Turner (hear Birthdays on Emanem from 1996), Russell has emphasized the percussive quality of his attack as well as the specific timbral variety of his guitar. Something similar happens with Altenburger, whose cello—in strings and register—is a much closer partner for Russell’s guitar. The two share an acute consciousness of the significance of timbre, to such an extent that timbre is virtually consciousness. Identity seems here to pass from one instrument to another, from strings to strings, from wood to wood, as if guitar and cello are exchanging physical space, as if each musician plays the other’s instrument. By the conclusion, only the most divisive kind of listening can separate the sounds of one instrument from the other.
–Stuart Broomer

ECM Records - Marilyn Crispell and David Rothenberg

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