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Geoff Leigh and Yumi Hara - Upstream

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Artist: Geoff Leigh and Yumi Hara

Album: Upstream

Label: Moonjune

Review date: Nov. 13, 2009

The prolific Moonjune label drops this duo offering from Geoff Leigh and Yumi Hara, two veteran improvisers. It essentializes each musician’s current concerns, highlighting what each does best in the process.

Both are multi-instrumentalists, with Leigh’s virtuosity and timbral diversity evident all the way back to one-off projects such as Mousetrap and the debut albums by Henry Cow and Hatfield and the North. More recently, he’s comprised one half of the ambient-drone duo Ex-Wise Heads, not to mention having performed and recorded with the enigmatic but visceral Faust. Hara’s earlier efforts include a beautiful set of soundscapes with the late Hugh Hopper, also released by Moonjune, but she’s also a composer, teacher and researcher, her scholarly work encompassing rhythm, improvisation and psychology.

The murky depths of human emotion are plumbed from the first gestures on Upstream, but sometimes the evocations go beyond one emotive state. Hara’s crystalline keyboard lines are matched gorgeously by Leigh’s flute trills and breathy swells, the timbres inhabiting a unified space. The two instruments bend pitches symbiotically, coming together on certain notes with satisfying synchronicity. On “The Mountain Laughs,” Hara switches to an edgy organ, adding tention to her rough-hewn chords as Leigh explores echoing expanses with each flute flutter and shake. These are meditative explorations that, in the spirit of Coltrane, conjure Orientalist themes without necessarily being specific as to geographic region.

Everything changes on “The Strait,” the proceedings becoming harsher and often more dissonant as Leigh breaks out the scronky saxophone. His long-cultivated “New Thing” figures alter and repeat over Hara’s craggy piano. A similar sheen of raw processing covers Hara’s voice and percussion on “Stone of the Beach.” It’s almost as if the disc was programmed to lead slowly to this stark but complex collection of overtones and syllables. Hara’s vocal range is impressive, as she runs the gamut from whispers to full-boar ululations, Leigh aiding and abetting at every turn.

A listening or two reveals the disc to be a series of well-placed tableaus that form an arch, so that when “Return of the Sirens” is reached, there is a palpable sense of completion. The meditative textures of Upstream are regained, the album ending in the gentle vain that began it. While electronics are used throughout, they never eclipse the human element. The sense of a duo in full improvisational flight is maintained, joining virtuosity and invention in contributing to the disc’s success.

By Marc Medwin

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