By Jason Bivins
Listeners paying attention to the terrific Bay Area scene have perhaps been lucky enough to hear trumpeter Darren Johnston on a few releases over the last decade. A player of vast technique and imagination, it’s some kind of crime that he’s not better known. With Frith, he’s got a partner equally as resourceful and unpredictable. For all the density of information and ideas on these fabulous duets, they’re tight and focused enough to convince that they’re halfway to compositions.
You never know quite what kind of texture you’re going to get from these players, though it’s one hallmark of the disc that they return somewhat regularly to quite lyric, frequently melancholy materials. The opener “Barn Dance” sounds like a drone-bliss Celtic folk tune, with Johnston playing a single interval in a bright full tone against Frith’s multi-layered fuzz backdrop. It’s gripping, and they favor this kind of setup, as it allows them to play with snaking lines and abstraction alike. The performances are very brief for the most part. This is especially so on “Scratch” and “Scribble,” little excursions into metallic percussive effects and arrayed brass squeaks and wheezes. But their chemistry is equally compelling elsewhere. On the longest track, “Luminescence,” Frith taps out a rhythm that he alternates with small mercurial runs, as Johnston spools out long, exotica-tinged lines that suggest the pair are flirting with songforms only they can hear (indeed, when Frith assumes melodic duties well into this piece, the effect is rather glorious).
Perhaps one characteristic uniting the two is their transformation (rather than discarding) of idiomatic instrumental features. Most obviously, you hear this when Frith deftly combines loops and linear work. But it’s abundantly there in Johnston’s riotous, NOLA-robot mute playing on the title track or his bravura solo piece “Down Time” (Frith’s “Rising Time” is raunchy and equally good). Most effective are those pieces where they sound, improbably, as if they’re combining several different techniques simultaneously: the muffle-scrape and horn-chortle on “Bounce,” the churning textural bed on “Morning and the Shadow,” the simple interval and rattling guitar prep on “Ants,” or the spacy drift of the closing “Standard Candles.” A marvelous journey into an alien musical landscape, this disc is what happens when two ambitious, creative utility players hook up.