kent carter | fernando grillo | maarten van regteren altena | barry guy | tristan honsinger

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Kent Carter: Beauvais Cathedral

Emanem 3306

Kent Carter / cello, double bass, melodica, piano strings, radio, Phillip Pochon / second cello (one track), Michala Marcus / flute (one track). Recorded: approximately June 1974.

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Fernando Grillo: fluvine

Cramps CRSLP 6203, DIVerso n. 3

Fernando Grillo / bass.

Recorded: 1975 or ’76.

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Maarten van Regteren Altena: Tuning the Bass

ICP 019

Maarten van Regteren Altena / bass.

Recorded: May 2, 1975 in performance, Amsterdam.

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Tristan Honsinger and Maarten van Regteren Altena: Live Performances SAJ-10

Tristan Honsinger / cello, voice (side one only) Maarten van Regteren Altena / bass (side two only). Recorded: Honsinger: November 7, 1976} Altena: October 29 & 31, 1976.

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Barry Guy: Statements V – XI for Double Bass & Violine

Incus 22

Barry Guy / double bass and violone. Recorded: October 30, 1976.

Throughout the literature of jazz and improvisation, probably less has been written about bass players than about any other type of instrumentalist – the reason being that the bassist’s role, while generally acknowledged (as in bop) to be crucial, has almost always been a subordinate one. Even the free-form advances of the Sixties offered the bassist only a modicum of room for individual expression. The ideal player was still mainly expected to lay some kind of foundation for the work of the others, and his worth was measured by the extent of his ability to do that while obscuring it. Henry Grimes or Gary Peacock come to mind as great players of this sort. It is only quite recently, as in the work of Sirone (with the Revolutionary Ensemble), that the bass has begun to assume a near co-equal ensemble function.

Doubtless because of that, much of the potential of the instrument – as an expressive medium in itself – has, until now, gone completely unexplored. The records under review document the present state of the virtuostic art which, it must be said, has come an incredibly long way in a very short time.

Common to each player’s work is the simulation of multiple levels of musical activity; the extensions of timbre and timbral effects as well as new harmonic extensions; a markedly increased rhythmic complexity along with the interpolation of various simultaneously occurring rhythmic thrusts; and a sense of form as pronounced as the level of spontaneity.

Of the four bassists – Altena, Guy, Carter, and Grillo – Carter and Grillo might be considered primarily “motion” players in that they tend to blend or run together layers of tonal colors, flowing through and with (or against) points of textural coincidence. As an outgrowth of that, both players employ some overdubbing on their records, Grillo on one track of four and Carter on six of eleven tracks. They might also be thought of as fairly “dramatic” players in some traditional sense of the word in that they make extensive use of dynamic contrast. Grillo’s work is more extreme in this respect in that his sound may be barely audible or as big as an outboard motor’s – the latter when he plunges headlong into the waves of harmonic density which is his most telling technical accomplishment. Sawing away with his bow, he nearly manages to dissect every sound into its component parts, speeding up and slowing down their manner of interaction in a monstrous textural maze. Yet as brazen an onslaught as that, his work has its moments of peace and calm, utilizing a subtle drone effect and becoming nearly hypnotic at times.

Carter’s playing doesn’t go to such dynamic or dramatic extremes, though his one piece for radio, piano strings, double bass, and five cellos almost matches the harmonic density of Grillo’s single instrument. Yet Carter’s work is more compelling rhythmically and moves quicker from area to area of sound. It likewise suggests an awareness of itself as being a continuation of a certain improvisatory tradition, whereas Grillo’s work implies a greater compositional awareness – that being true, even though these particular pieces of Grillo’s might more correctly be referred to as language studies rather than as finished compositions. (Note: The liner notes to Grillo’s record are in Italian, so it’s unclear to me whether his pieces are actually composed or improvised. But even if they are totally improvised, they still bring to mind a largely compositional frame of reference in the formal assumptions they seem to be making.)

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Next to Carter’s and Grillo’s, Guy’s and Altena’s contributions would have to be considered primarily rhythmic. Guy’s technical approach seems closely related to that of Derek Bailey on the guitar, though the way the sound emerges is quite a bit different – really, it is closer to the splintery fragments of sound thrown out in the most complex rhythmic interactions by Evan Parker on his saxophone. Yet Guy’s tone on his instruments is a relatively pure one, closer to Grillo’s tone when the latter is not taking up any great harmonic challenges.

Altena, on the other hand, has the hardest sound of any of these four players; it a thicker, harder struck sound, employing all kinds of off-beat harmonics and unusual timbral effects – many dull, dead sounds mixed in with the other ones. This is especially true of the SAJ record, which is a bit further along in this respect than the earlier ICP one or, for that matter, his work on Company 1 (Incus 21, reviewed elsewhere). In all cases, Altena’s forte is the bringing together of rhythmic and textural elements, generally employing two or more techniques simultaneously through a shifting, phased-in-and-out, repetitive substructure. Much of this is tongue-in-cheek, with a definitely humorous quality to it, though always the playing and techniques employed are highly advanced.

Cellist Tristan Honsinger’s work, which also appears on the SAJ LP, is like a hard-edged song and is somewhat freer harmonically, timbrally, and structurally than his work with Derek Bailey (Duo, Incus 20, reviewed elsewhere) or that on Company 1. It’s still in largely the same vein, though – fast as lightening, occasionally touching familiar ground, then soaring off again. Here, however, his vocal interactions with himself become a more integral part of the whole – building and sustaining a high-strung, drone-like tension and providing a constant counterpoint of line to line or to rhythmic impetus.

For all of these players, their work on these LPs is likely their best on record. Heard together, their approaches indicate the current level of technical/aesthetic achievement for the bass and related string instruments. Especially recommended, though all are important, are Barry Guy’s record (Incus 22) and the Altena/Honsinger LP (SAJ-10).

Henry Kuntz, 1977

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