Barre Phillips/Motoharu Yoshizawa

Oh My, Those Boys!
NoBusiness Records NBCD 103

With the dexterity and ingenuity internalized after years of music making, venerable double bass doyens, American Barre Phillips and the late Japanese Motoharu Yoshizawa combined for more than 75 minutes of contemplative improvisations. Recorded in 1994, as Yoshizawa (1931-1998) was feeling the impending end of his career as Japan’s most eminent Free Music bassist, the CD also serves as a prelude to the adroit creativity Phillips (b. 1934) would continue to exhibit into the next century,

Although close in age, the under-recognized Yoshizawa and Phillips had similar views on their chosen instrument’s substance. Recording with Derek Bailey, Kaoru Abe, Elliott Sharp and Masayuki Takayanagi, Yoshizawa also concentrated in solo bass excursions from the late 1960s on. Known as the first musician to record a wholly improvised solo bass session, Phillips has lived full-time in France since the early 1970s, and followed a wide-ranging career that began with playing Jazz with committed types such as Archie Shepp and Stu Martin; later establishing himself as one of Free Music’s paramount string players in large and small ensembles; and most prominently maintaining a decades-long trio association with two Swiss nationals, saxophonist Urs Leimgruber and pianist Jacques Demierre.

With that configuration years in the future, Phillips who plays conventional bull fiddle here, takes the roles of anchor, conciliator and formalist, keeping his forays within the expected range of the instrument. Meanwhile playing a home-made electric vertical 5-string bass, Yoshizawa is ostensibly the joker in this deck of cards, although his string-strategies aren’t that much different than Phillips’s.

A clear demarcation of their roles comes on the shorter – slightly longer than 20 minutes – track, “Those Boys”. Prepared with effects, it’s as if Yoshizawa’s instrument is signal processing twangs and rumbles from within its body, oscillating impulses that unfold alongside his pizzicato and Arco considerations. Swelling and shrinking, his detuned vibrations frame Phillips’ chunkier string narratives. Guiding the exposition through wood-rapping, while picking and bowing his string set at the same time, the American finally corrals Yoshizawa’s traffic-jam-like disruptions into a linear form that in the end turn to a showcase both splintered and soothing.

Less persuasive, “Oh My” sometimes goes in-and-out of focus as the two maintain an improvisation over almost 55 minutes. Here’s where the non-visual aspect come into play, Unable to watch the experience unfolding, what in real time would be revealed as cause and effect is sometime presented in a vacuum. Both players are too accomplished to let this trope continue for long. But from the time mallet-slapped string reverberations are produced at the be3ginning, the strategy involves one player advancing the narrative chromatically and the other decorating it with as many sul tasto squeals, spiccato jolts and torque high-pitched timbres as possible. One sequence climaxes when spindly shrills and tripled stops are subordinated to almost concert hall formality from bowed bass lines, though so closely attuned are the two that they could be a single person playing a multi-string Sardinian guitar. Slightly before the half-way mark a rapprochement is reached with one bassist thumping expected double bass timbres and the other spiccato feints in the cello range. While this sequence climaxes with a secondary melody and its extension created, most likely from Phillips, the sonic journey that leads to it involves the duo digging deeper and deeper into their instruments’ lowest pitches, with singular bell-like tone heard as they negotiate the journey one string at a time. Yoshizawa’s coiled-spring like warbles are distinctive, as are Phillips’ ambulatory pace that grounds the duet. Finally with the dark woodiness of both instruments’ concentrated into a blended continuum, the final section is revealed as serious-minded and majestic.

Top-flight instances of committed low-pitched innovators craft, the CD reveals much about in-the-moment dual improvising. Mercurial rather than melodic in application, true sonic rewards come in carefully following every moment’s twists, turns, upending and realigning of the presentation.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Oh My 2. Those Boys!

Personnel: Barre Phillips (bass) and Motoharu Yoshizawa (home-made electric vertical 5-string bass)