Chris Heenan is an alto saxophonist and bass clarinetist currently establishing himself on the international scene. Luckily, he understands that the best way forward isn’t self-promotion as sax hero, or buying in famous rhythm sections for showcase releases, but noticing who else is playing innovatively and working with them. He’s recorded with percussionist Stephen Flinn, who made a splash with Keep the Meter Running (see The Wire 245), and here shows a keen ear for who’s making the running in international Improv: Martin Blume on percussion, Tucker Dulin on trombone, Wolfgang Fuchs on reeds, Anne Le Baron on harp, Torsten Müller on bass and Philipp Wachsmann on violin and electronics.
The venue for this one-off encounter was painter Patrick Wilson’s sunken living room in Mount Washington. The recording was remixed at Newzone Studio by Heenan, Wayne Peet and Jeremy Drake, who played amplified acoustic guitar on the date. The mix is exemplary, honouring the dynamics and relations of the original improvisations, yet making everything sparkle in a way room recordings of large ensembles often don’t. Müller’s bowed bass occasionally slows down the tempo with amazing authority, as if the time-space continuum of the music is being warped in the presence of a black hole. LeBaron’s harp keeps piling in extraordinarily detailed motifs. Quicksilver irrelevance spills in every direction creating delicate webs, weird details, canny textures.
Fans of the splatter and thump of Iskra 1903 or Bailey versus Bennink might find it all a bit pretty and polite. However, there’s no easy remedy for this etherisation. No less than other genres, free improvisation cannot avoid the general refinement in playing technique that has occurred over the last 50 years. Just as metal alloys have become lighter and money more transferable, so musical note have become thinner and more flexible, more directed by the human will. Attempts to return to the big bold primitivism of yore tend to sound rather mannered, from Wynton Marsalis and Acid Mothers Temple to Old School rap. Although Heenan’s crew haven’t found a royal road out of this dilemma, they pace the territory with verve and sincerity. Everyone is really paying attention. Except for moments where Wachsmann’s violin imports an inappropriate idiom (Viennese schmaltz), the music is a rare example of an octet improvising successfully. Something new and musical keeps unfurling.
Ben Watson, The Wire Issue 247 September 2004