FOR AN IMPROVISATORY PROJECT, the title What? perhaps poses the ultimate open-ended question. In earlier recordings on The 52nd imprint – including The Science of Snow, The Lightning Bell and Each Edge of the Field – guitarist/pianist Charlie Beresford and cellist Sonia Hammond proved adept in summoning musical vibrations from the rural landscapes of the Welsh Marches in which they dwell, inviting us, the audience, to creatively interact.
Though again recorded in their familiar surroundings of Hammond’s old schoolhouse in Radnorshire, this time the possibilities are significantly expanded with the trumpet/flugelhorn of Gerry Gold and various instrumentation from Rod Paton – primarily piano and French horn.
There’s a perennial wonder in the way that, across genres, composers painstakingly craft classic works which stay with us all our lives. But fascinating, too, is the ability of improvising musicians to begin and develop a ‘conversation’ which, moments earlier, had not existed. Somehow, too, the freshness of discovery in listening remains, influenced by our environment or mood – interpretation is certainly a personal, sometimes involuntarily emotional experience.
Heard at Eastertide (around the time of the album’s release), What? can tangibly express both torment and hope; in the dead of night, there’s a different feel, with every nuance more sharply focused; under springtime-azure skies, animation and whimsy unfold. Whatever you find, thanks to the perception and musicality within this quartet, there’s a profound connectedness which never falters.
Just five tracks across almost an hour echo the expanses of Stow Hill’s ‘trig point’ location seen in the monochrome sleeve imagery, and the combinations of timbres can be teasingly ambiguous. De-liberation’s cagey chitchat between horns, guitar and cello evolves into a playful, if tentative discussion, while the midway piano entry paints pointillistic splashes as well as providing romantic sustenance and structure. Fragile wooden-flute murmurs and chinking percussion in Hill suggest folkloric mystery, belying the rumbustious dances to follow; and Paton’s piano again brings a more tonal stability. Over twenty minutes or so, Wolf’s winding, sprawling route is waymarked with beauty – howling French horn, jangling ‘prepared’ strings, reeling piano and cello; and here, the quartet’s intuition feels particularly strong. There’s even a charming, homey coda reminiscent of the early output of once (relatively) nearby resident Mike Oldfield – tender and pretty.
Horn yelps, angular melodica and percussive guitar and cello in Is imply inhospitable weather, accentuated by droplet piano and dramatic ostinati before gathering a rhythmic, Kurt Weillian jauntiness (amidst so many other acoustically-achieved effects). To close, Beresford’s elegant guitar improv in Ask Me Now is complemented by shadowy, elongated voice and cello phrases, culminating in ‘symphonic’ torrents as the piano’s precipitation gently ceases.
Improvisation such as this requires a listener’s total participation… which I find endlessly mind-expanding and rewarding. Music of pure imagination to ‘take us outside’, What? feels like this label’s most absorbing collaboration to date.