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Basso Profundo

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Two Brahmins of the bull fiddle take stock in the state of their art.

Basso Profundo

Wise are the musicians who allow their work to speak for itself. British bassist Paul Rogers is cut from this incisive fold and his summarizing statement included in the notes to Listen bespeaks refreshing brevity: “I never have much to say about what I do, other than listen to the music.” The four collected pieces offer just such an imperative and in the process speak volumes. Varying in length from just under forty minutes to slightly south of four, each one is a densely packed encapsulation of Rogers’ action-oriented technique on the double bass. In his consummately capable hands the entire instrument is a canvas; virtually no surface is left unscathed. His in-demand status is no secret and his agile fingers and bow have powered some of the most dauntingly virtuosic ensembles in European improvised music. Saxophonists Evan Parker and Paul Dunmall are among his regular employers, and his febrile strings are the fulcrum on numerous other sessions for the Emanem label ( http://www.emanemdisc.com).

The first three tracks on this generous gathering of solo performances are the result of a ’99 concert in Le Mans. Rogers employs a specially augmented five-string double bass for the foray, along with a small clutch of little instruments including sticks, hand cymbal, drum and penny whistle. “Listen 99” sprawls over nearly two thirds of an hour and it’s a wild ride. Opening with a pizzicato foray that alternates between violent thickets of strummed energy and delicate, almost harp-like, lattices of notes Rogers sets the bar impossibly high from the start. Each change in direction signals yet another surpassing of expectations as he pushes both his limbs and strings past the limits. Splaying fingers up and down his fingerboard with blinding speed he creates striking juxtapositions of pitch, tempo and density. Carpal pressure and digital dexterity come into play in startling ways and it’s easy to get lost in the sheer physicality of the performance.

Drawing bow from leather scabbard seven minutes in Rogers scares up a scintillating pattern of harmonic shades and hues. Pivoting comfortably into a swathe of Classically tinged sonorities, he etches sudden crevices of dissonance into otherwise mellifluous surroundings. Soon an Aurora Borealis of tonal pigments radiates outward peppered by pizzicato pockmarks. It’s almost possible to smell the acrid odor of smoldering rosin on strings during such passages, so vivid is the conjured aural imagery. Holstering bow for another lyrical interlude, his fingers once again take on the tensile properties of tempered steel in a mercilessly detailed manipulation of the strings. The only lapses come when Rogers divides his time between his bass and the handful of peripheral accoutrements. Dampened by strategically placed sticks, his strings take on ghostly new tonal incarnations that mimic the whispering of wind-laced pines. Even under the endurance-sapping length of the piece, Rogers’ shrewd imagination rarely wanes and the overarching structure that evolves becomes something to ceaselessly marvel at. Two far shorter addendums follow, each one delivering a brusque blend of further arco and plucked pyrotechnics.

Succinctly titled, but still quite lengthy at almost twenty minutes, the disc’s final piece “Listen 89” originates from a decade earlier. Rogers holds court on a regular four-string bass in front of a London audience and the sparks are nearly as plentiful and combustible. Fidelity isn’t quite so crisp, but the slicing strength of Rogers’ strings surmounts the low level surface static. Starting with a sparsely deployed series of chirruping bowed drones, the piece moves into closely compacted harmonic architectures. Switching to broad snapping finger strokes, Rogers plummets back to subterranean registers for the remainder of the piece. The entire disc is one that will almost certainly leave mouths agape and ears in want of more. A coveted signifier like ‘virtuosic’ almost seems like a pittance when applied to a talent as towering as Rogers.

Barry Guy favors a style of explanation similar to Rogers’ on his own recent solo bass venture Symmetries for Maya (http://www.mayarecordings.com). Aside from the basic session particulars, a John Cage quote serves as primer on the inevitability of life. Once again, the music fills in the gaps and leaves near limitless room for interpretation. Ten pieces and seven miniatures, these titled “Fizzles” presumably in reference to his earlier Maya solo entry of the same name, flesh out the program. Of the ten, two come from the Charles Mingus songbook and Dietrich Buxtehude’s “Klagelied” inspires a third.

Though he’s playing a relative infant of an instrument, one built by Roger Dawson in 1997, Guy wastes no time in putting it through some backbreaking paces. “Whether or Not Why Not” is a blur of sawing harmonics and piercing arco lines. A core melodic thread burrows through the piece’s center, surrounded by flanging ribbons of sound. Guy’s use of space and meticulously measured pitch miraculously creates the illusion of multiple voices. Mingus’ “Weird Nightmare” benefits from artificially layered harmonics, but given Guy’s earlier feats, the studio wizardry seems hardly warranted. The piece builds in a mournful mélange of crosshatched melodic lines, leaving a swiftly dissipating trail of tonal streaks in its wake.

“Eclipse”, the other Mingus entry, receives a recasting almost as radical. Guy dismantles the theme into a barely recognizable constituency of parts only to reconfigure it into a fresh guise rich with somber pathos. “Quiescence” also makes use of post-performance overlays, this time in the form of an underlying pedal drone over which pizzicato clusters take flight. Other tracks, like the somewhat diffusive “Soft Fire” stumble a bit under the yoke of Guy’s staggering technique, and seem more exercises than definitive performances.

“Bichrome Terrors,” proves aptly named. A prickly flurry of spider-like pattering bleeds into a barbed wire backdrop of tangled pizzicato strums. The jangling sortie against the strings continues and Guy ratchets up the tension with violent clattering assaults against his fingerboard. A move to less militant spaces and stark lyricism is short-lived as the terrors resume in a final wave of oppressive fitfulness brought on by a belligerent bow. “Odyssey” stays true to its title as well with an ear-assuaging itinerary that moves from calm-inducing tonal filaments steeped with muscular sensitivity, into darker, more stringent string regions. Stripped down to solo size, it’s a markedly different reading than the trio version released on the Intakt disc of the same name, but no less essential.

The “Fizzles” pieces serve as a finely segmented detour beforehand, but several beg for further development and seem sure to buck the strictures of their stunted running times. “Slow Slam” erupts in a horizon-wide expanse of whirring tonal swathes, menacing in the huge volume the bassist metes from his bow. Closing with the ominously named “I Have Crossed By the Grace of the Boatman”, Guy conjures a final cloud of swirling, sharp-edged arco striations. Just as on the disc’s opening piece, a traceable thematic current perforates the spiraling mass of sound, making for a counterintuitive marriage of conflict and harmony.

Rogers and Guy work from differing angles and approaches, but they each achieve a level of synergy with their instrument that few musicians can claim. The former’s recital is more relentlessly visceral. Sustained brutality and strength are joined with aggressive improvisatory momentum that rarely lets up. Technique appears almost an afterthought. There’s also a more immediate and unvarnished feel to the sound. Guy’s method seems more overtly cerebral and in a way more elastic given the compositional variety. His pieces blend the premeditated with the spontaneous in a manner that sounds seamless. Both discs represent pinnacles of achievement on the double bass and deserve to be heard by as broad an audience as possible.

By Derek Taylor

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