“By the way, if you don’t like guitars you won’t like this CD!” So says guitarist John Russell, in his sleeve note to Translations, laying out the truth in typically plain, simple terms. Russell is part of the generation of improvisers who came together in London in the ’70s and have been mainstays of the capital’s improv scene ever since. If that makes it sound parochial, thanks to Russell the reality has been very different. Through his monthly Mopomoso series of live concerts (celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2011) and his annual three-day festival Fete Quaqua, Russell has established links with improvising musicians across many countries and warmly welcomed them to London.
Russell’s duo with French guitarist Pascal Marzan dates back to 2004, and typifies the links he has made with other musicians. The recordings here date from February 2007 and March 2010, in both cases recorded at Russell’s home of the time, which helps to explain their relaxed, happy-go-lucky atmosphere. In his sleeve notes, Marzan gives a telling insight into the recordings, noting that the only sounds removed were “some unavoidable external noise and the subsequent bursts of laughter and discussion about music.” The pair’s shared love of the guitar and guitar music pervades the entire album.
On the recordings, Russell’s steel-strung plectrum playing is heard on the left channel and Marzan’s nylon-strung classical guitar on the right, allowing the different contributions of the two to be heard clearly and easily distinguished. Although the two guitars have very different timbres, they blend well as the complementary parts of a coherent totality. The natural playing styles of Russell and Marzan are very different, yet together they adapt to each other and find a common style that allows each to play fluently and freely. When they are in full flow, the music seems to pour out of them smoothly and effortlessly, making it simultaneously relaxing and exhilarating.
On the album’s longest track, the 24-minute epic “Kuulilennuteetunneliluuk” (in keeping with Russell’s internationalism, the track titles are taken from tongue twisters in various languages, some being English translations), the pair starts at a brisk pace, spurring each other on and exchanging phrases at speeds that demonstrate their mental and manual sharpness. The piece then settles down to a more sedate tempo, but the technique remains just as impressive. It never sounds as if the two are in competition—no dueling guitars here—but are both totally involved in an enjoyable and engaging game. As Russell says, “I find the duo a continuing delight.” Yes, it shows.
By the way, if you do like guitars, Translations makes for compelling listening; if you don’t like guitars, it could well change your mind.
The magic of Pascal Marzan and John Russell’s Translations lies in the miraculous pliability of strings. The two guitarists are dangerously adventurous, although one is slightly more programmatic than the other; still, both artists test the elasticity of their nylon and steel strings to the maximum extent. It is almost certain, however, that Marzan and Russell did not set out to make this album as edgy as it turned out; too much of it sounds unscripted, with music stuttering at first, then billowing out and swelling, as the guitarists get underway. It ebbs and flows and swirls again, as fragments of started melodies collide almost like the burgeoning currents at the mouths of musical estuaries. The breathtaking sonic vistas that break make drowning in their ensuing harmonies a happy thought.
Although there are no songs here, the five set pieces evolve dramatically with boldly stated openings, surging middles and emphatic endings. Titles may be odd, surprising, or even arrogantly mystifying, but they encapsulate the meandering nature of the music and bring to life every surprising twist and turn that emerges from the fiery and almost suicidal nature of creativity. Nobody dies, of course, but the musicians risking their lives for each note is symptomatic of the sense of musical death and transfiguration at work here. In the end, it is the music that drives the titles and not the other way around. So, while it is possible to put their own twisted nature aside for a moment, it is important to note that they form an integral part of the music’s Absurdist, or even Dadaist nature.
And then there is the fact that this music is played on guitars. These stringed instruments were almost subservient to other stringed instruments, such as the violin, cello and contrabass. The lute became somewhat paramount during the baroque era and was elementally popular among players of English songs, but the guitar really grew in Southern Europe, where human passions and emotions were worn on the billowing sleeves of artists. To translate this to the guitar meant manipulating the taut strings in a manner that had not been heard, pulling them down as notes were plucked; sliding the hand that held the harmonic invention dramatically across the fret board. Naturally, musical repertoire expanded as a result of greater familiarity with the instrument as well as with its grammatical exploitation.
Both Marzan and Russell excel at this. Their mastery of the nature of pure sound is flawless, as they create a wondrous world of music from twisting fingers and a myriad techniques to create the drama and epic nature of this elementally beautiful guitar record.
Raul D’Gama Rose
All About Jazz
John Russell and Pascal Marzan have been playing together since 2005, and this CD presents the results of two of their meetings, about 35 minutes of music from sessions in 2007 and 2010 which took place in Russell’s former home in Finsbury Park and current home in Walthamstow, with Marzan acting as recording engineer. That sense of familiarity informs the music, extended dialogues between two acoustic guitarists attuned at once to the similarities and differences in their two traditions – Russell plays a steel string archtop with a plectrum, the heir to the dance band and jazz traditions, while Marzan fingerpicks a nylon-string flat-top and uses techniques from classical and flamenco – and both avidly exploring all the different ways you can make sounds with a guitar, including scraping and preparing its strings and rubbing its body with the thumb. There’s a passage of intense rubbing on the relatively brief “Nightwork” that sounds at least as much like a duck as a guitar. Or perhaps a tale told to a guitar by a duck and later repeated. The dialogue is as much linear as timbral, sudden runs and rhythmic focuses delivered through a host of sounds that can suggest anything from slack-skin drum kit to ukulele to the upper register of a grand piano. Moments of wit and animation can give way to reverie, as on the extended (25 minute) “Kuulilennuteetunneliluuk.” This is continuously engaging and shifting work that never sounds the same on subsequent listenings, our attention repeatedly moving between the two musicians and their roles in this stream of consciousness, always finding more detail, more points of intersection and divergence. In his note Russell warns, “if you don’t like guitars you won’t like this CD!” If you do, it’s an essential experience. You’re unlikely to feel further inside a guitar unless you’re playing one yourself.–SB