by Ian Mann
April 30, 2020
“Neutral Tones” finds Beresford continuing to hone his unique and deeply personal approach to improvisation. He and Harries have produced a frequently compelling album possessed of an austere beauty.
(The 52nd – Digital Release only)
Charlie Beresford – acoustic guitar, voice
Tim Harries – double bass
Following hot on the heels of the début release of the What! Quartet, featuring Beresford, cellist Sonia Hammond, trumpeter Gerry Gold and multi-instrumentalist Rod Paton comes this duo recording featuring the combined talents of Beresford and bassist Tim Harries.
My review of the What! Quartet recording can be viewed here;
Like the What! Album “Neutral Tones” also appears on Beresford’s The 52nd imprint, named for Beresford’s alliance with Canadian photographer Gaena da Sylva, from Quebec, who collaborates with Beresford under the generic name the52nd (as in parallel). See http://www.the52nd.com
Beresford has appeared regularly on the Jazzmann web pages in a variety of contexts, firstly as a solo artist and later as a member of the improvising groups Fourth Page and Crystal Moth. A particularly successful collaboration has been his musical partnership with cellist Sonia Hammond and the pair have released an excellent series of albums in the duo format, among them “The Science of Snow” (2015), “Each Edge of the Field” (2017) and “Circle Inside the Folds” (2019), all of which appeared on The 52nd, and all of which have been favourably reviewed by The Jazzmann.
In 2016 Beresford and Hammond teamed up with Fourth Page pianist Carolyn Hume to release the trio recording “The Lightning Bell”, an album that also featured a guest appearance by vocalist Judie Tzuke. This particular recording is reviewed here;
Living in the same geographical area as Beresford and Hammond I’ve been fortunate enough to see both musicians performing live in nearby locations. Fourth Page visited my home town of Leominster in 2012 while in 2018 the aptly named aggregation Borderless came to the town, a quartet featuring both Beresford and Hammond plus Camilla Cancantata (previously Saunders) on piano, trombone and vocals and the Baghdad born Ahmed Mukhtar on oud. Review here;
Harries is a supremely versatile musician who is an in demand player on both acoustic and electric bass across a variety of musical genres from jazz (Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, Richard Fairhurst, Dan Messore’s Indigo Kid, Jacqui Dankworth) to folk (Steeleye Span, June Tabor) to pop (Katie Melua). His penchant for electronica and the experimental has seen him working Brian Eno and with the ambient duo Puul, his collaboration with the Norwegian drummer/percussionist/sound artist Terje Evensen.
Puul’s eponymous début from 2014 is reviewed here;
Harries and Evensen were also part of UK jazz drummer Martin France’s experimental electro-jazz outfit Spin Marvel and appeared on that group’s second album “The Reluctantly Politicised Mr. James” from 2010.
Beresford and Harries have worked together before and the latter made a substantial contribution to Beresford’s 2009 solo album “Dark Transport”, on which Harries performed on bass, keyboards and percussion. This was the first Beresford recording I heard and it was an intensely personal release, with its roots in tragedy. Review here;
More than a decade on Beresford and Harries have renewed their partnership on a series of ten pieces that draw their inspiration from the works of Thomas Hardy, with the album title borrowed from that of one of Hardy’s poems.
One assumes that these performances were freely improvised and the music was recorded as recently as February 2020, before being released into the digital domain in April. Plans for a physical release were postponed due to the Covid-19 outbreak, but the music is out there. Thanks to Charlie for ‘burning’ a CD for me strictly for review purposes.
Beresford has helped to pioneer a particularly distinctive, and very British, brand of free improvisation that draws inspiration from the landscape and from elements of folk music. The emphasis is on beauty and the creation of atmospheres and moods rather than the sound, fury and bluster of much freely improvised music. It’s an interesting and innovative niche that has drawn a considerable amount of critical acclaim for projects that Beresford has been involved with, such as Beresford Hammond, Fourth Page and, more recently, What!
“Neutral Tones” commences with “Rowan”, initially an intimate musical dialogue between Beresford’s acoustic guitar and Harries’ plucked and strummed double bass. At first one might be reminded of similar exchanges between Ralph Towner and Glen Moore, both of the group Oregon, back in the day. But things take an abrupt turn with the introduction of Beresford’s part whispered, part spoken, part sung vocals, which bring a mysterious, vaguely unsettling quality to the music. Beresford’s vocals have variously been compared to Robert Wyatt, John Martyn and David Sylvian and they bring a highly distinctive element to his music. The vocals in improvised music usually involve the use of ‘voice as instrument’ but Beresford’s vocalising includes the use of lyrics, with the words spontaneously improvised alongside the music. It’s a unique approach that gives credence to the phrase ‘instantaneous composition’ or even ‘instantaneous songwriting’.
“A Twain Converged” features Harries making use of the bow and Beresford deploying ‘prepared guitar’ techniques – i.e. the placing of objects on or under the strings to modify the sound of the instrument, a technique similar in conception to that of the prepared piano. One suspects that fellow guitarists Keith Rowe (of the group AMM) and Derek Bailey have been an influence on Beresford in this regard. Beresford combines conventional and extended techniques here to help produce a music that is simultaneously strangely beautiful and vaguely disturbing.
These are qualities that extend into “The Darkling Thrush” which also contains extended guitar techniques, possibly involving the use of a bow on the strings, a technique that Beresford has become increasingly fond of in recent years. Harries meanwhile moves between pizzicato and arco bass. The sounds generated by the pair sometimes resemble the twittering cadences of birdsong, but with a dark edge that makes the chosen title, again borrowed from a Hardy poem, seem particularly apposite.
“The Reddleman” is a taut, intense dialogue between ten plucked strings with the bodies of the instruments occasionally being deployed as auxiliary percussion.
On the lengthy “Between Us Now” Beresford’s slowly evolving acoustic guitar ruminations are underscored by the ghostly, almost subliminal sounds of eerily bowed bass.
Beresford’s phrasing sometimes has a Towner-esque quality about it, but his use of extended techniques and greater willingness to embrace free improvisation and the avant garde leads his music into very different areas. This is demonstrated by the following “Please The Ground”, another spontaneously composed ‘song’. Extended instrumental techniques including ‘prepared guitar’ and percussive effects complement Beresford’s semi-spoken vocals, his voice helping to give the music a sinister atmosphere that sometimes reminded me of Tom Waits.
The unsettling ambience continues into “From The Madding Crowd” with its shimmering acoustic guitar and deeply resonant double bass, these sounds again allied to percussive effects with the performers treating their ‘axes’ as ‘complete instruments’. There are elements of folk and blues techniques in Beresford’s playing here, a reminder that this duo draw on many influences to create their distinctive improvised music.
“Jude The Obscure” continues to draw on the inspiration of Hardy and features both musicians making use of the bow, subtly trading phrases in hushed but compelling musical conversation, the mood of the exchanges hushed, but still vaguely unsettling.
At eight and a half minutes in duration “Troy’s Black Card” is the album’s lengthiest piece and features a gradually unfolding dialogue with the conventional acoustic sounds of the two instruments judiciously expanded via the means of percussive effects and other extended techniques. The conversation evolves slowly and organically, with the musicians taking their time to create atmosphere and nuance as the performance develops.
The album concludes, appropriately, with “A Last Dance With Tess”, which contrasts Harries’ deep, dark double bass bowing with Beresford’s bright, pointillist acoustic guitar. Glimpses of breezy folk melody abound, countered by the lowering tones of Harries’ grainy double bass.
Beresford lives in the Welsh Marches and I’ve written previously about how the music of both Beresford Hammond and the What! Quartet has been influenced by the Border landscape.
Here, notwithstanding the fact that it was actually recorded in Northampton, the music seems to take inspiration from the landscape of Hardy’s Wessex, and specifically that of the season in which Hardy wrote his “Winter Poems”. It’s perhaps not entirely coincidental that Beresford and Harries recorded this music in February. There’s a bleak beauty about much of this material, and often a vaguely unsettling atmosphere that is reminiscent of the British countryside in Winter. The melancholic beauty that suffuses much of Beresford’s output with cellist Hammond is even more pronounced here with my fellow reviewer Adrian Pallant describing this album as featuring “shadowy, contemplative landscapes”, which seems to me a perfect summation.
“Neutral Tones” finds Beresford continuing to hone his unique and deeply personal approach to improvisation and he and Harries have produced a frequently compelling album possessed of an austere beauty. It won’t be for everyone and as an introduction to Beresford’s work I’d be more inclined to direct listeners towards the latest Beresford Hammond release or the recent What! recording, both of which are more accessible and approachable, but still totally representative of Beresford’s extraordinary music and unique approach to free improvisation.
“Neutral Tones”, plus other recordings featuring Charlie Beresford, are available from https://the52nd.bandcamp.com/
blog comments powered by Disqus