The saxophone finds itself in a problematic position in much contemporary, freely improvised music. It has a strong tendency to carry a huge amount of baggage. A great deal of that "baggage", of course, is part of a beautiful tradition, but placed in a context where the non-idiomatic is prized, that history can become something of a stumbling block toward achieving the desired transparency of content. For some reason, reed players seem to be affected more than brass. Trumpets and trombones can merge more seamlessly with strings or electronics, perhaps because they lack the innate human cry that is part and parcel of the saxophone and which human ears tend to conceptually isolate. Keith Rowe is acutely aware of this issue and, almost quixotically, has insisted on working in projects with saxophonists, seeking a happy medium or, better still, looking to influence reed players to shed more and more of their historical weight. Michel Doneda would seem to be a prime candidate, someone who has already reduced his soprano to, as has been described previously, more a metallic tube with holes in it than a musical instrument. Urs Leimgruber, though capable of relatively extreme playing, appears somewhat more wedded to the tradition.
This disc consists of two lengthy tracks, one recorded in 2001, the other in 2002. In both, Rowe, as has been his wont in recent year, virtually disappears as an active musical participant, instead filling the role of "canvas". I'm reasonably certain that he would have liked his collaborators to follow him to this point (and then, maybe, out of it) but the difficulties quickly become apparent. Doneda does, in the first piece, rein himself in a bit, concentrating on breathy hisses more often than reedy notes, but still he sets himself apart from the group sound, unable to recede from the foreground. Leimgruber fares even less well, offering the sort of trills he produces in performance with Joelle Leandre; they might work wonderfu lly there, they sound intrusive here.
Oddly enough, though recorded earlier, the second track works a bit better, though largely for the deep area Rowe explores during its latter half. The saxophonists appear to have been farther behind in their "lessons" (maybe they were revolting against Rowe's dictum!), placing themselves even further up front, steering the trio into a relatively mundane, though by no means unaccomplished, type of free improv that has been heard quite often over the last 20 or so years. Again, it's not bad music-it's a far sight better than much out there-but Rowe is aiming at vastly different prey, something he seems to allude to almost directly as he sends his guitar plummeting into the abyss for the last few minutes of the piece (reminding me, strangely enough, of parts of the original Fripp/Eno recordings). Though the experiment can't be deemed an unqualified success, its failures (and the reasons for them) are fascinating enough to easily warrant a listen by those interested in this type of problem.
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