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Benedict Taylor – Transit Check / A Purposeless Play ; Benedict Taylor And Anton Mobin – Stow | Phasing; Tom Jackson, Benedict Taylor, Daniel Thompson – Hunt At The Brook

Benedict Taylor: dashing young blade of the London (and beyond) free improv scene. He’s a busy man and a fine player and in possession of a veritable encyclopaedia of techniques. The scratchy ones, the frittery ones, the ones that sound a bit like a helicopter in the distance. But not showy, in case you’re worried that it’s going to sound like a viola lesson. I mean, we’re still in the realm of free improv, so your mum mightn’t be too keen, but there’s a lightness and a humour in parts (not least in song titles) that’s not always present in free improv. From the top…

Benedict TaylorTransit Check

Benedict Taylor - Transit CheckOne of the things I enjoy most about free improv is the solo record. Or the solo show (and I’ll be honest, I watch a lot of improv shows but listen to very little of it at home). There’s a time and a place for the larger ensembles but a solo player, ideally acoustic, is where you get to see the player, warts and all.

The sense of frailty and tension and the difficulty of sustaining a solo show means that it’s a bastard of a thing to pull off. I’d say there’s not many players who can do the solo unamplified show consistently well — I’ve seen John Butcher do it a number of times, and Jennifer Allum (who I never tire of describing as my favourite improviser in the country) does it great. And, on the evidence here, Benedict’s more than capable too.

There’s a whole world of squelchy technique and loveliness here. While there’s the impression of a narrative, there’s no fear in changing direction on a whim. We’re not into the realm of erratic, “play fast and hope no-one notices there’s a lack of ideas” free improv here, but that way of playing — habit for a lot of people, including some older players — is dropped in more for colour than anything else. There’s this really impressive kind of contrary motion thing throughout Transit Check — two notes moving indifferent directions, often seemingly at different speeds. It’s dropped in effortlessly, which belies what a bastard of a technique it is. Slides using the frog of the bow, bowing at odd angles, microtonal drones, flautando ricochets… as I say, it’s an encyclopaedia of technique, showy without being wankery and with a good measure of dynamics and pacing. For you or the string player in your life.

Benedict Taylor and Anton MobinStow | Phasing
Raw Tonk

Benedict Taylor and Anton Mobin - Stow | PhasingI’ve not come across Anton Mobin before but the look of his website, he’s busy in a lot of directions. Sleeve notes say that Mobin is playing “prepared chambers, zither” while Taylor’s on viola, but it’s difficult to tell what exactly that means. That is to say, it’s not clear how Mobin goes from those chambers and zither to figured lines that sound like a double bass or music boxes. So let’s assume the sleeve’s not quite giving us the full picture.

We’re close to traditional free improv here, in there there’s periods of expansion and contraction — bits that are definitely two players on different pulses and ideas, happily not really listening to each other. Bits where both are carefully flitting in and out of each other’s groove. And then extended bits of pulse/ drone, themes and variations. And the listening experience is one where I enjoyed it more when I put it on, forgot about it, then suddenly found that it’d been changing the room like suddenly realise the smell is the corpse in the corner. OK, there’s probably a better metaphor somewhere, but you get the idea.

Seeing as we’re into Taylor-time here, he’s showing himself to be very deft, changing tastefully around the other player, flitting between textural and melodic playing on a whim. Theirs is a lush pairing, tasteful and careful but unafraid to plug into their own vibe, so here’s hoping the duo hits these shores before too long.

Tom Jackson, Benedict Taylor, Daniel ThompsonHunt At The Brook

Tom Jackson, Benedict Taylor, Daniel Thompson - Hunt At The BrookNow this is probably the most “traditionally” free improv record — a trio of Taylor, Tom Jackson (clarinets) and Daniel Thompson (guitar). It’s not a million miles away from loads of those sorts of records. Very much a trio of talented players with a wealth of techniques, plenty of close attention payed and listening going on, but… well, it seems unfair of me to say, but this really sounds like a GREAT live show and I really struggle with this sort of free improv on record.

As an example of that sort of improv it’s great, and no-one’s burying anyone else by overblasting, there’s tension and attention but… I just don’t vibe with this kind of fare on CD. There’s some lovely sleeve notes courtesy of Jean-Michel van Schouwburg, which have this nice line about “Several practices (post-classical, contemporary free jazz, traditional) are embraced and sublimated with emotion, sincere commitment and a generous restraint” — which is as judicious a description as you’ll read. So, basically, if you’re up for a trio free improv record that ticks along without percussion, this is the record for you.

Benedict TaylorA Purposeless Play

Benedict Taylor - A Purposeless PlayBack to the solo world, some four years after the first one. It’s a double CD and the song titles are all mildly absurd and read as a statement — “Never Apologise”, “Never Explain”, “Agitate”, “Antagonise”, “Aggravate”, “Animate”. I think if I was teaching viola, I’d probably give these CDs to the kids. Which would doubtless make up for my inability to play the viola.

From the off, this is a great deal more preponderous than the earlier Transit Check — this being a studio recording and that being a live recording, there’s a great deal more time taken, ideas evolve more slowly and get chased down deeper rabbit holes. For my money, it’s the best of the bunch, but it being two CDs of solo viola improvisations it’s possibly not for the faint-hearted or impatient listers.

We get some astonishing range — quieter than a gnat trying to piss without waking the neighbours to something like the inside of a glass washing machine filled with teeth. There’s nothing moving at glacially slow pace — nothing that would quite fit the mould of drone (although drones are used), but there is the sense that an idea fits its purpose, get moved around, repeated and distorted just long enough. We get some exploration of partials and odd bowing techniques, harmonics, standard string player “angry bee” sounds. And, perhaps most outlandish of all, areas of genuinely gorgeous melodic playing.

And yeah. I’m pitching in to say that A Purposeless Play‘ is one of the better examples of solo playing — unhurried, smart, silly, jumpy, discontinuous, smooth, melodic, expansive… and plenty of other words could apply to it; but the short version is that for those of us who play improvised strings (that’s me, in case you’re wondering), this is a great record to give some ideas, or give you shame that you’re not practising enough (me again).

-Kev Nickells-

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