Friday, January 29, 2016

Fred Frith and Darren Johnston's "Everybody's Somebody's Nobody"

Prolific guitarist-composer Fred Frith has had a highly circuitous career trajectory, from the rigorous political prog-rock of Henry Cow to pioneering solo prepared-guitar experiments, participation in the '80s Lower Manhattan underground (including collaborations with John Zorn and Bill Laswell), composed music for film and dance -- both Field Days (The Amanda Loops) and Propaganda were released on his Fred Records label in 2015 -- and academia (currently on the faculty of Mills College in California). To get a sense of the scope of his musical world, check him out in the 1990 documentary Step Across the Border. This album, released by estimable Portuguese indie Clean Feed, finds him teamed with Canadian trumpeter-composer Darren Johnston for a series of dance-and-film inspired vignettes. (On his own, Johnston's composed song cycles based on interviews with, and letters written by, recent immigrants to the United States.)

Both musicians are known for exploring and extending their instruments' tonal and timbral possibilities, and those approaches are audible here, along with their shared gift for listening and spontaneous composition -- from the incandescent long tones of the opening "Barn Dance" to the percussive dialogue of "Scribble" to the more developed material of the moody "Luminescence." On the title track and "Morning and the Shadow," Frith provides almost orchestral accompaniment to Johnston's themes, the wealth of sonic detail beautifully captured by engineer Myles Boisen's recording. (Could this be the same Boisen that occasionally plays guitar for Mark Growden? Because the performers are based in the Bay Area, I'm guessing it is.) On "Down Time" and "Rising Time," Johnston and Frith take respective solo turns; the guitarist's is reminiscent of his collaboration with percussionist Evelyn Glennie on The Sugar Factory. Non-idiomatic improvisation can be more fun to play than it is to listen to, but Everybody's Somebody's Nobody is as rewarding an auditory experience as you'll have this year.


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