AgustŪ FernŠndez: Challenging Duos

Eyal Hareuveni By

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Barcelona-based pianist Agusti Fernández, the late German master bassist Peter Kowald and the nomadic Swedish reedman Mats Gustafsson are true representatives of the European tradition of free improv. All three are passionate investigators of their instruments in a way that so often transcend their idiomatic properties. These two releases chronicle two duo meetings at the home base of Fernández, one of the most challenging pianists on the European scene.

Fernández is a musician who bridges the American free jazz model of Cecil Taylor with the European model of modern composers like Iannis Xenakis (with whom he studied). Fernández has recorded duos before with other master improvisers, such as the late Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and William Parker, and he recently joined Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and Barry Guy's New Orchestra.

Agusti Fernández / Mats Gustafsson
Critical Mass

Fernández and Gustafsson played together for the first time in Barry Guy's New Orchestra (Oort-Entropy, Intakt, 2005), and this release proves that they've already reached a very close affinity. Critical Mass, recorded in July 2004, is a fascinating and quite often muscular demonstration of extended techniques. Gustafsson's acidic bursts and Fernández's violent hammerings and poundings on the keys dominate some of the tracks, but both players are much more varied and sophisticated improvisers.

On the fourth track Fernández extracts percussive sounds from the strings of the prepared piano, up to a point where they sound as he plays cymbals, and manipulates the strings as if he is bowing a double bass. Gustafsson is already a master of using his reeds as rhythm devices, and he has acquired a lexicon of percussive gestures, such as whispering into the tenor and baritone saxophones and immediately closing the saxophones' bell, clever fingerpicking, or employing the lower register of the sax for a series of rapid, short blows.

The fifth track presents the two players in an abstract mood. Gustafsson's gentle breaths add an ethereal dimension, and Fernández's minimal playing is almost romantic. Gustafsson's solo track is an excellent showcase of the way he uses his horn to build rhythmic breaths and blow-outs. Fernández solo piece is another investigation inside the bowels of the piano which turns the instrument into a metallic machine. Only the last track brings the two to where it all began, a full-force, almost conventional free jazz blowout.

There are no limits to the ten sonic excursions. Fernández and Gustafsson are eager to face any challenge and to push the envelope of their instruments on any given moment in a way that keeps you bewildered, amazed but usually smiling and enjoying the endless wonders that this release offers.

Agusti Fernández / Peter Kowald
Sea of Lead
Hopscotch Records

This duet was recorded in August 2000, and it carries a much calmer mood compared to the stormy duo of Fernández and Gustafsson. The seven part suite "Sea of Lead" features both Kowald and Fernández in a more meditative mood. The textures are less dense, more nuanced and even minimalist. On the fourth and fifth part of the suite, the delicate playing of the strings—the double bass and the prepared piano—sounds almost like child's play, innocent and amused, but soon turns into a more dark and mean mutilation of the strings throughout the sixth part. The last part of this piece is romantic, and Kowald and Fernández even reference a swing duo for a few seconds.

On the fast "Rhizomes" Kowald leads with his exceptional arco technique while Fernández echoes his stream of ideas, and on "Tendrils" both opt for a head-on collision through tough playing. Their open-minded approach on this track manages to reference some left-of-center bebop playing and even walking bass lines, but at the same time their approach to these basics is abstract. The short "Three Voices" features Kowald's otherworldly overtone singing, stressed by a forceful arco playing and Fernández's pounding on the piano. The last track, "Kowald's Dream," is Fernández's solo tribute to the sorely missed Kowald. He plays all over the prepared piano, in the same way that Kowald used to play all over his double bass, and turns the piano into as a new musical entity, in the same inspired spirit that Kowald pioneered.

Only 41 minutes long, but every second is majestic.

Visit Agusti Fernández, Mats Gustafsson and Peter Kowald on the web.

Tracks and Personnel

Critical Mass

Tracks: Critical Mass; Critical Mass; Critical Mass; Critical Mass; Critical Mass; Critical Mass; Critical Mass; Critical Mass (Gustafsson solo); Critical Mass (Fernández solo); Critical Mass.


Personnel: Agusti Fernández: piano, prepared piano; Mats Gustafsson: tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone.

Sea of Lead

Tracks: Sea of Lead part I; Sea of Lead part II; Sea of Lead part III; Sea of Lead part IV; Sea of Lead part V; Sea of Lead part VI; Sea of Lead Part VII; Rhizomes; Tendrils; Three Voices; Kowald's Dream.

Personnel: Agusti Fernández: piano, prepared piano; Peter Kowald: double bass, overtone vocals.


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