Guitar and Drums Duos: Derek Bailey/Tony Oxley, Mark O'Leary/Han Bennink, Mary Halvorson/Weasel Walter

Clifford Allen By

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Tony Oxley and Derek Bailey
The Advocate

Mark O'Leary and Han Bennink
Ayler Records

Mary Halvorson and Weasel Walter
UG Explode

In creative music, the most obvious place to start with the duo is breath and rhythm. From the Tuareg of Algeria to the fife-and-drum corps of the South, that basic inclination towards projected air and amplified heartbeat is what defines the genesis of human- organized sound. Slightly rarer but with no less import is the duo exchange of stringed instruments and drums. It's known that the Ancient Greeks accompanied their epics with a hand drum and some sort of lute, so such a combination isn't out of the question. Its application in modern jazz seems to have reached a quick zenith in freedom and as three discs by both progenitors and torchbearers show, that's still a vital connection to humanity.

The late English guitarist Derek Bailey often said he enjoyed playing with drummers the most—his antic exchanges of constant subversion with Dutch percussion-collector Han Bennink are storied documents of European free improvisation's halcyon days. Countrymen John Stevens and Tony Oxley were among his regular foils; Oxley was, along with bassist-composer Gavin Bryars, one of Bailey's first partners in jazz via the Joseph Holbrooke group. Bailey collaborated on Oxley's first four leader dates, though oddly they never released anything commercially as a duo. The Advocate, unearthed 1975 recordings (plus one 2006 Oxley solo piece), present exactly what that sounds like. Bailey was more of a colorist in Oxley's heavily organized compositions; it's no surprise, then, that Bailey seems muted in comparison to the kinetic slinging (both acoustic and electronic) that Oxley produces here. On "Sheffield Phantoms" it's a gradual blend as Oxley's rimshots, wooden clink and contact mics edge in and devour Bailey's slower, decentralized rhythms before slinking off into a gauzy field of volume pedals, long tones and delicate prods. "Playroom" finds Bailey's strums and flecks teased by a range of electronic hum and garble, in keeping with Oxley's sparser work of the later '70s.

Bailey's work with Bennink was decidedly unsubtle and rooted in a Dutch-English sense of antagonism. That's not so evident in Bennink's duets with Irish guitarist Mark O'Leary on Television, where the Zeeland elder statesman relies wholly on his Klook-inspired shuffle, the same one that propelled saxophonists like JR Monterose, Eric Dolphy and Dexter Gordon to staggering heights in the '60s. O'Leary often chooses partners who revel in the same sort of midrange subtlety, so it's often hard to discern the obvious in his landscape. With a contrasting (but not antagonizing) element like Bennink, his improvisational acumen, the fleetness contained in cloudlike delicacy, is given something to both butt up against and with which to move forward. The guitarist revels in the low end, nearly tenor-like on the title track as Bennink stirs the pot with high-pitched press rolls and crashes, finding rhythms from bebop to Surinam within the scumbled, gauzy pitches of O'Leary's fretwork. There's a nearly gypsy-like swing to "Stylus," like most of the tunes here a quick and concise run through fleeting ideas (only three of the dozen tracks run over five minutes). That's not to say the pair can't stretch out and the longer Bennink has his way with O'Leary, the more he seems to tease the specifics out of the guitarist's blended air.

Guitarist Mary Halvorson is known mostly for her work in Anthony Braxton's ensembles, as well as a chamber-improv duo with violist Jessica Pavone. With Pavone, her choice is mostly acoustic, allowing the ornate and sometimes stomach-churning curlicues of her art an unfettered presence. On Opulence, a collaboration with Weasel Walter, formerly of the now-defunct Flying Luttenbachers, Halvorson's choice is roaring, tweaked electricity in territory charted by free-rock guitarists, though she doesn't sound a lick like Ray Russell or Rudolph Grey. "Rare Vodka from the Fourteenth Century" is a fullness of acrobatic trills, fuzz pedals and extraordinarily fast strumming as Walter inverts melody in a gloriously rackety showdown. Halvorson builds delayed plucks into a storm of fuzz toward the improvisation's last breaths. "Bald Eagle Tartar Washed Down with a Cup of Melted Gold" finds Walter on clarinet mouthpiece as well as percussion, his cymbals stroking the guitarist's grungy belly as footfalls mark event-time. If there are moments of rest, they occur when Halvorson plays unamplified (a more drastic switch-off than Bailey's volume pedals) or in the opening salvos of hurled repetition and inversion, for even quietly full-bodied runs soon become jagged and lickety-split as she goads Walter into splattered trots. Opulence is muddy and gritty, but as full-bore and joyous as anything this side of Frank Lowe and Rashied Ali.

Tracks and Personnel

The Advocate

Tracks: Sheffield Phantoms; Medicine Men; Playroom; The Advocate.

Personnel: Tony Oxley: percussion and electronics; Derek Bailey: guitar.


Tracks: Television; Stylus; Foraging; Counter Punkte; Black; Just Like With Rene; For Bernie; Tiger Honey; Woodcuts; People; You're Going To Want To See This!; Nothing New.

Personnel: Mark O'Leary: guitar; Han Bennink: drums.


Tracks: Rare Vodka from the Fourteenth Century; (Rich) Corinthian Leather; Bald Eagle Tartar Washed Down with a Cup of Melted Gold; Faberge Eggs Filled with Caviar; A Diamond Encrusted Frisbee; Lapis Lazuli Nights; The Art Deco Hairbrush; Bronze, Amethyst and Saffron.

Personnel: Mary Halvorson: guitar; Weasel Walter: drums and clarinet mouthpiece.


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