Artist/s: CHV. Ashley Cross (guitar), Rob Vincs (tenor saxophone/saxello), Anita Hustas (bass/ percussion/objects)
Reviewed by Joseph O'Connor
“Despite attractive moments, the impact of this collection of improvisations from Melbourne-based ensemble CHV is compromised by stylistic disparities that suggest a need for greater aesthetic focus.”
Improvised releases have both the freedom and burden of establishing their own musical terms. In absence of comprehensive codes that determine modes of interaction and the musical nuts and bolts (harmonies, rhythms, orchestration etc), the burden falls on the musicians to articulate a clear aesthetic focus. All contributors must have a sophisticated common understanding of how diverse musical elements will fuse in a way that is ultimately convincing. Terrestrial is a new release from CHV, a Melbourne-based improvising trio of Ashley Cross on guitar; Anita Hustas on bass, percussion and objects; and Rob Vincs on tenor saxophone and saxello. Unfortunately, a lack of aesthetic consistency in the album’s seven improvisations detracts from its attractive features.
Saturn in Scorpio is the longest track and I will discuss it with the greatest detail to illustrate impressions that also translate to the shorter improvisations. All musical styles include characteristic motifs, timbres, gestures and rhythms by which listeners can identify the cultural antecedents that contextualise a performance. When these stylistic fingerprints or clichés are deployed carelessly outside their original contexts, they draw attention to the constructedness of the music and can send conflicting messages. Terrestrial is scattered with stylistic clichés that make it difficult to approach the music on its own terms. Saturn in Scorpio opens with a linear guitar improvisation from Cross that makes strong references to contemporary jazz. A riff is repeated, transposed up a fourth, and repeated once more in the transient tonic key, briefly suggesting a blues form. Following the opening, the improvisation settles into a modal environment. The jazz influence emerges patently to my ear and yet the music seems determined not to be jazz. The musicians avoid the pulse-based interactions and instrumental roles that are normally associated with the genre.
here is a conflict in Vincs’s playing between the modal approaches of spiritual free-jazz and more experimental tendencies in the vein of Peter Brotzman. The period 4:00 – 5:00 in Saturn in Scorpio exemplifies this conflict. Non-tonal melody and over-blowing effects resolve into an unadorned major environment using a phrase that is all too close to what one might expect in smooth jazz. Smooth clichés emerge again in Jupiter (at 5:45) and Aquifer (at 5:38) and seem incongruous with their surrounds. There is an uncomfortable disparity between these moments of stylistic reference and the overall aesthetic thrust that implies a non-idiomatic orientation. This disparity is particularly jarring because improvisers often arrive at this mode of music making through direct resistance to the prescriptions of more circumscribed styles.
The ensemble gels more effectively when clichés are kept at bay. Terrestrial, Crossing Fitzroy and Teahupo’o (Place of Skulls) make more successful impressions. In Teahupo’o, the music is gentler, sparser, and more focused. Hustas bows beautiful timbres in the upper register, accompanied by subdued guitar effects and plaintive saxophone melodies inflected with loosely articulated ornaments.
A number of the improvisations on Terrestrial begin in an open harmonic territory and converge later on a modal area (Aquifer, Saturn in Scorpio, Teahupo’o). I am familiar with this drive towards secure formulas that bring an improvising ensemble together in tacit agreement. However, the transition into modal harmony following more exploratory beginnings suggests a waning of resolution as the music poses formal challenges along the way. My reservations are not with modal harmony per se but with a deferral to modal improvisation as a fail-safe. Chris Abrahams and Julia Reidy are two Australian examples of improvising musicians who seem entirely at home referencing modal practices, inhabiting their stylistic roots wholeheartedly. Anita Hustas is doing exactly this on Terrestrial. Her contributions are consistently poignant. Her improvisation at the beginning of Roaring Beach is particularly beautiful, a sumptuously bowed melody of elegant simplicity that is brought to life by sophisticated bowing techniques. She draws sweeping flurries of high partials from the instrument with what sounds like sul ponticello. The bass rings with a vibrancy that reminds me of viola da gamba. Unfortunately, the ensemble doesn’t quite coalesce around the focus that she brings to the improvisations.
Despite my reservations, there are attractive periods in Terrestrial when everything comes together, but these periods would have to occur more consistently for the music to make a memorable statement.