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Various Artists: Freedom of the City 2004 - Small Groups (2005)

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Various Artists: Freedom of the City 2004 - Small Groups How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

Emanem is without equal as a purveyor of improvised music, with a catalogue now numbering over 130 albums. The label's annual Freedom of the City releases (this is the fourth annual "Small Groups double CD release) serve several functions. They provide an excellent record—aural and photographic—of the festival itself, whether or not one attended; they are a great way for newcomers to sample the label's music (effectively acting as samplers, even though the music is not available elsewhere); they are a good way for old hands to hear artists new to the label. And for everyone, old or new, they make damn fine listening.

As in past years, "small groups is liberally interpreted, ranging from a solo performance—Paul Rutherford, in majestic form—through to a sextet; the main distinction is with much larger groupings such as the London Improvisers Orchestra.

Three duos, each of which has also had an entire Emanem CD of its music released since last May, provide particular highlights of this album. Clive Bell and Sylvia Hallett are well matched in their sense of adventure and exploration; their combined array of instruments must be as diverse as those of any duo, but the instruments are not gimmicks (even—or especially—Hallett's notorious bicycle wheel; they are employed because they give the sounds needed for the performance. Lovers of drones (among which I definitely count myself) will be delighted by the slowly evolving soundscapes that they achieve. Over the top of these, they add a range of frequently unearthly and eerie sounds. Without seeing these sounds being produced, one can only wildly speculate—or else just immerse oneself in them. The totality is worthy of the description "ghost trance music ; pity it's taken. Check out their new release, The Geographers, for further explorations.

For me, Gail Brand and Morgan Guberman were one of the unexpected highlights of last year's festival. Guberman's vocal gymnastics (the only phrase that does justice to what he does) melded well with Brand's trombone. Often, they are most reminiscent of a Chuck Jones cartoon—unpredictable, anarchic, funny and fun. In performance, the two struck sparks off each other, something that was not fully captured on their 2004 duo album, Ballgames and Crazy, but is revealed by the two tracks here.

Roger Smith and Louis Moholo were playing together for the very first time (hence the track titles!), an incredible fact given the combined total of their years on the scene. It is an inspired pairing, instigated by the guitarist. Smith's guitar playing is very percussive and at times this is more of a percussion duo than anything else; however, Smith is apt to throw in snatches of beautifully melodic playing when one is least expecting them, to stunning effect. Given the title of this duo's subsequent release, The Butterfly and The Bee, I am tempted to speculate which is which, but that's no easy task, as (in true Muhammad Ali fashion) both players can equally float and then sting to devastating effect!


Track Listing: Whithersoever; Titled Improvisation part one; part two; part three; A Skein; A Lock; A Gaggle; A Purl; Tension Sort; Geiger Release; Heart Sliced Open; Pop Goes The Drunkard; The Very First Time; The End Of The Very First Time.

Personnel: Track 1: John Russell, guitar; Stefan Keune, sopranino saxophone; Phil Minton, voice; Philipp Wachsmann, violin & electronics; Georg Wolf, double bass / tracks 2--4: Paul Rutherford, trombone / tracks 5--8: Clive Bell, sipsi, shakuhachi, pi saw flute, mini-khene, Cretan pipes; Sylvia Hallett, viola, bicycle wheel, jews harp, breath, digital delays / tracks 9 & 10: Chris Burn, piano & percussion; John Butcher, soprano & tenor saxophones; Claire Cooper, guzheng; Jim Denley, flute, bass flute, alto saxophone, voice; Will Guthrie, amplified percussion; Matt Hutchison, synthesisers & electronics / tracks 11 & 12: Gail Brand, trombone; Morgan Guberman, voice / tracks 13 & 14: Roger Smith, guitar; Louis Moholo-Moholo, drum set, musical doll.

Record Label: Emanem


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