By John Sharpe
Here’s a West Coast entrant to the slim body of guitar/trumpet duets from iconoclastic strummer Fred Frith and trumpeter Darren Johnston. It collects 11 short cuts from two studio sessions into a three-quarter hour program. They’re not averse to co-opting rhythms (Frith) or melodic figures (Johnston), meaning that what we have here can be termed the accessible avant-garde. Each jointly crafted extravaganza explores a different mood. They ring the changes both between numbers but also within them, especially in some of the longer pieces.
Both men succeed in keeping things interesting through unexpected decays and twists, well exemplified on the guitarist’s unaccompanied “Rising Time.” Frith deploys a multiplicity of textures and electronic effects, such that he blends chameleon-like with whatever the prevailing character dictates. Johnston matches the guitarist with a range of attacks. But the difference is that even in the most out there moments, lyric invention is never too far below the surface.
Improv meets ambient might be the headline, particularly in those tracks where Frith sets up a backdrop over which Johnston extemporizes. Prominent in this category are the folky “Barn Dance” where Johnston’s slow refrain combines with Frith’s bagpipe like drone to fashion a beautiful introduction to the disc, and the brief but animated “Scratch” where Johnston’s forthright splutters float over Frith’s lumbering percussive fretwork. The selection which gives the album its title constitutes another example. Frith sets up a ponderous lurch, like something from a Tom Waits’ performance, while Johnston responds muted yet garrulous, producing a free funk creation.
But at times they indulge in more experimental and unfettered exchange. “Morning and The Shadow” is a case in point, where the trumpeter’s swirling series of rising and falling arpeggios foreshadows a panoply of odd noises from Frith comprising rattles, growls, scrapes and tinkles, before they revisit the opening gambit. On the final “Standard Candles” a series of sustained tones shimmer and bloom, rounding out a thoroughly enjoyable meeting of open minds for those with open ears.