Classical, Improvisation, Music, New Music
Move MD 3352
Reviewed by Michael Hannan, April 1st, 2014
Keith Humble (1927-1995) distinguished himself as a composer of concert and electro-acoustic music, as a brilliant interpreter of new music and as an educator. This collection of recordings with legendary American contrabassist, Bertram Turetsky, represents another side of Humble’s versatility, namely free improvisation. Humble and Turetsky were colleagues in the music school at the University of California, San Diego (Humble was a frequent visiting professor there) and these recordings were made in that setting. To my knowledge this archival recording is the only commercial release which features Humble as an improvising musician, so Move Records are to be congratulated for taking on this project. That said, it would have been useful if the CD booklet had provided some specific information about each track. The annotations indicate that the collection is “taken from various recorded performances over the years” but no details are given except for one performance date in 1986. Turetsky himself should have been persuaded by the (uncredited) producer of the CD to contribute something to this aspect of the project.
The opening track, We know Webern is an excellent introduction to the amazing array of timbres, extended techniques and idiomatic gestures that Turetsky has developed for the contrabass. The sparse texture featuring sporadic and melodically angular interplay between piano and contrabass highlights the finesse of Turetsky’s technique
The next seven tracks on the CD use electronic sounds played either via a keyboard controller or activated by real-time programming. The thickly and rapidly textured Extremes employs a variety of electronic keyboards sounds that blend reasonably well with the contrabass both in timbre and texture. Where to? has a similarly frenzied interplay between electronic and bass sounds. By contrast, Humble’s electronic palette for Wait involves pulsating sustained backgrounds to a more introspective melodic approach by Turetsky. The electronic sounds in this and the next track, Slide, are complex programmed textures rather than note sequences performed on a keyboard, although Slide also involves a wild improvised piano solo. As with We know Webern, Quiet is a compendium of highly varied short musical gestures in the contrabass but is accompanied by sporadic electronic keyboard patterns such as chromatic scales. It is perhaps the least conversation-like track of the CD. Space features a spooky sustained electronic part accompanying a thoughtful contrabass melodic solo that is notable for its pizzicato note-bending and glissandi. To end the improvisation, the evocative electronic mood is transformed into a confronting high-pitched squeal. The meeting features some unbelievably high-pitch sounds from the contrabass.
Electronic sounds are replaced by acoustic piano sounds for the remainder of the album. One note slap explores the idea of creating many different timbres from a single note (the A below middle C) of the piano. These are played in a variety of unconventional ways including touching the string at various harmonic nodes while hitting the associated key. This mostly static improvisation is aggressively punctuated by contrabass string slapping effects. For me this is the most successful “conversation” of the CD even though it is perhaps the least “kinetic” of all the offerings. Dark consists of an impassioned sustained modal melody with low piano chordal drones, alternating with with highly contrasting low rapid piano passages combined with col legno rhythmic effects. A little groove has some groove elements but mostly it is rhythmically fragmentary and often the playing is a bit uneven. There is much more groove in Histoire dance but still some unevenness in the rhythmic execution.
Sustained slow melodicism (with alternating plucked and bowed sections) dominates the final track, The sound of bass. Mysterious piano chord progressions support the solo part near the beginning and again near the end of the performance.
Overall the improvisations for piano and contrabass are more sonically appealing than those involving electronic sounds. The synthesised sounds lack the rich timbral, dynamic and gestural interest of the stunning contrabass playing. Some of the improvisations using piano are also marred by an out-of-tune instrument. It is probably the case that these live recordings were never intended for release but it is a small price to pay for the chance to hear the unique performances of these two remarkable musicians.