The increasingly fertile Southern California scene has spawned an exciting new label in the form of Reify; these three releases all feature saxophonist / clarinettist Chris Heenan, joined by guitarist Chris Forsyth, guitarist Jeremy Drake and percussionist Stephen Flinn on Team Up and, again with Drake, a veritable gallery of improv stars on Mount Washington: trombonist Tucker Dulin, reed multi-instrumentalist Wolfgang Fuchs, bassist Torsten Müller, percussionist Martin Blume, harpist Anne LeBaron and Philipp Wachsmann on his customary violin and electronics. The octet convened at the Los Angeles home of painter Patrick Wilson for a one-off session immediately prior to 2003's LINE SPACE LINE festival, and the seven (untitled) improvisations here are the result. As several of the musicians had performed together on numerous occasions, it's not exactly a first-time meeting (Fuchs and Blume know each others' moves rather well), but there's the expected freshness and bite to the playing. Drake's spidery guitar and Wachsmann's sonic scribbles complement each other beautifully, and it's always a pleasure to rediscover LeBaron's artistry (can't let Rhodri Davies have all the gigs, can we?). Whether there was any attempt to organise or conduct proceedings isn't made clear; if there were, it would only be logical, if not, then the musicians manage to coexist successfully without stepping on each other's toes. And so they should: Fuchs, Müller and Wachsmann have an impressive track record in large ensemble improvising with the King Übü Örchestrü, LeBaron has participated in numerous Company events, and Dulin knows how to go the distance with Masashi Harada's Condanction Ensemble. When they all take off it can produce quite a racket, but the full octet line-up is used sparely.
Team Up provides an opportunity to focus in on the work of Drake (who's credited on "amplified acoustic guitar" but spends a lot of time using a bow - one might be excused for thinking he's playing a viola at times), Heenan and percussionist Flinn. In contrast to the nervous twitches of the opening "In a space of tactile familiarity", which in feel looks over its shoulder to earlier models of improvised music (Flinn's scattery chattery percussion extends the Paul Lovens / Roger Turner axis impressively), "Defamiliarizing the table" begins with an ominous rash of amp buzz from Drake and unpitched breath effects from Heenan, a vocabulary that belongs to more recent developments in improv. "Nearby objects leading others to recede" is equally slowmoving, though more concerned with pitch. The album throughout aims to steer a course between the opposite aesthetic extremes of high speed gabbiness and near-static micro-improv (several thousand miles away a similar schizophrenia pervades the music of Norway's No Spaghetti collective), which testifies impressively to the musicians' breadth of knowledge but leaves the listener unsure as to where precisely to situate the musicians.
If Heenan had any doubts as to which side of the field to run up, the duo set with Chris Forsyth helps him decide. Forsyth, who is amassing a sizeable and impressive discography, has little time for standard guitar technique, preferring to regard the instrument as a laboratory on which to carry out various experiments with diverse preparations (assisted, it would seem, by various effects pedals). In terms of sheer volume, notably on "I ask questions", during which he builds an impenetrable fortress of rough Geiger counter crackles, Heenan simply can't compete, and the delicate nuances of his bass and contrabass clarinet multiphonics are obliterated. When Forsyth leaves him some space to manoeuvre, Heenan knows how to fill it - "I listen more" is the best example (and the best title) on offer. The final track is entitled "I like the way you use language", and when both musicians actually speak the same one, things work just fine - elsewhere there seems to be some need of an interpreter.