by Ian Mann
August 31, 2021
"Music that successfully combines energy with beauty and challenging improvisation with instinctive melody". Ian Mann enjoys the improvised sounds of the Tony Bianco and Faith Brackenbury duo..
(Discus Music – Discus 112CD)
Tony Bianco – drums, bass
Faith Brackenbury – violin, viola
I am grateful to violinist Faith Brackenbury for forwarding me a review copy of her latest album release, a duo recording featuring her collaboration with the multi-instrumentalist Tony Bianco, a musician best known as a drummer who has worked extensively in the area of free jazz and improvised music.
Brackenbury’s playing first came to my attention in 2019 with the release of her superb EP (or ‘mini-album’) “KnifeAngel”, a four part suite of around thirty minutes duration inspired by Alfie Bradley’s statue of the same name. This was recorded with a stellar sextet featuring Martin Speake (alto saxophone), Rob Luft (guitar), Alex Maguire (piano), Oli Hayhurst (double bass) and Will Glaser (drums). Review here;
Brackenbury is a highly versatile musician, and sometime instrument maker, who first trained as a classical violinist before branching out into the worlds of folk, jazz and improvised music. She played with the Irish folk band Slainte and also with various ‘Hot Club’ style bands.
Brackenbury’s gravitation towards jazz resulted in her studying the music at Birmingham Conservatoire, graduating in 2014. She later established a successful creative alliance with Martin Speake, playing and singing with the saxophonist’s Mafarowi group and working even more closely with him in the improvising duo Zephyr. My review of the début Zephyr recording, first released in 2018 can be found here;
Brackenbury also plays viola, piano and hammered dulcimer as part of the long running folk duo Brackenbury & Neilson alongside accordionist John Neilson. The pair released their début album, “Crossings”, on the Monoline record label in 2018. A review of a 2019 live performance by the pair, part of a double bill with folk instrumentalists Owl Light Trio, can be found here;
Her other activities include the multi-media project The Four Susans (the name a Vivaldi pun) and a music and poetry project celebrating the life and work of the war poet Wilfred Owen. “Wilfred & Susan; War and Love” features spoken word and the music of a string trio led by Brackenbury.
Brackenbury has also performed with the indie/classical artist Tiny Leaves (aka Joel Nathaniel Pike) and appears on his album release “Notes On Belonging” (Pegdoll Records, 2018). She has also written music for the theatre company Silent Monkey.
In October 2018 Brackenbury collaborated with the Newcastle based band Archipelago as part of their ‘Between Waves’ project geared to promoting women in music. Her pieces “Earth” and “Tidal” can be heard on the “Between Waves” compilation album, which also features works from three other female artists, Rosie Frater-Taylor, Lisette Auton and Fran Bundey.
At the time of the “KnifeAngel” release Brackenbury was also working on “The Birds Suite”, a jazz based work inspired by “The Conference of The Birds” by the twelfth-century Sufi poet Farid Ud-Din Attar. The suite was due to be performed by a quintet comprised of Brackenbury and Speake plus pianist Alex Maguire, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Dave Storey. I’m not sure whether this project has actually come to fruition, one suspects that the pandemic has probably hindered its progress. Incidentally, keen eyed readers may recall that “Conference of The Birds” was also the title of a classic ECM album from 1972 by bassist and composer Dave Holland.
Tony Bianco was born in New York City but has been based in Europe since the 1990s, firstly in Berlin and later in London, collaborating with many leading UK and European improvisers. I first heard his playing in 1998/9 when he was member of trumpeter Loz Speyer’s Miles Davis inspired “Two Kinds Of Blue” quartet.
However Bianco is best known as a free jazz player and his collaborators in this field have included saxophonists Paul Dunmall, Elton Dean, Evan Parker, Mark Hanslip and Mike Fletcher, pianists Keith Tippett, Aki Takase and Alexander von Schlippenbach, trombonist Paul Rutherford and bassists Paul Rogers, Marcio Mattos, Colin Somervell and John Edwards.
Other projects have included a quartet with pianist Zoe Rahman, saxophonist Carlos Lopez Real and bassist Oli Hayhurst which resulted in the album “In A Western Sense”.
There is also the trio douBt, with keyboard player Alex Maguire and Belgian guitarist Michel Delville. This line up recorded the acclaimed 2009 album “Never Pet A Burning Dog”, a title also used by Ronnie Scott as I seem to recall. The album includes guest performances by former Caravan / Hatfield & The North / Camel bassist and vocalist Richard Sinclair.
Decision Dream is a kind of free jazz, power trio featuring Bianco, bassist Jair-Rohm Parker Wells and guitarist Magnus Alexanderson. This line up produced the powerful, wholly improvised “Steam Room Variations” set in 2005.
Bianco has enjoyed a particularly successful creative alliance with the great American saxophonist Dave Liebman and was instrumental in bringing Liebman and Evan Parker together on the 2008 album “Relevance”. Liebman later became a member of Bianco and Delville’s electro-jazz project Machine Mass and has also been part of Bianco’s Monkey Dance group.
The Bianco / Brackenbury project emerged out of the Covid lockdown, with the pair meeting up on a regular basis to play and to discuss musical and political ideas. Brackenbury speaks of the challenges of playing without harmony in a free jazz context and of ‘unlearning’ the techniques and ideas acquired through years of performing both classical and folk music.
The duo’s improvisations were sometimes piano and strings, sometimes drums and strings. On the recording Bianco focusses on the drum kit but also overdubs some double bass parts, Brackenbury plays both violin and viola.
There are three lengthy pieces, all of them entirely improvised. The recordings were made at Bianco’s home in March and April 2021 and subsequently mastered by Discus label owner Martin Archer at the Discus Music Studio.
Of the music Brackenbury comments;
“Everything is first takes and no edits, and so captures some raw feelings”. She also speaks of her “deep connection to Tony’s own musical flow”.
For his part Bianco states;
“It’s like providence brought us together, to get through these times, but also to explore our constantly expanding ideas and concepts in music”.
The album commences with the thirty one minute title track, beginning with the sound of Bianco’s drums and overdubbed double bass, the latter providing a sense of structure around which the other instruments can coalesce. The restless polyrhythmic flow of Bianco’s drumming is complemented by the swooping and soaring of Brackenbury’s violin, improvising very much in the manner of a horn player. There’s an instinctive rapport between the two and a real sense of energy and urgency about the performances, with Brackenbury’s bravura bowing having elicited comparisons with the playing of Jerry Goodman, violinist with The Flock and with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. Brackenbury briefly drops out to allow Bianco to duet with himself on drums and bass, but she’s soon back and playing with that same combination of grace and fire as the duo continue to perform with a thrilling, free-wheeling intensity. There’s no letting up as the duo continue hell for leather for the whole of the track, with Brackenbury weaving melodic spells around Bianco’s anchoring bass lines and his relentless percussive barrage. It represents an exhausting, but exhilarating listening experience.
“I’m glad the CD is called Rising Up’” notes Bianco. “It reflects the need not only in myself, but in the world, to get over the dark obstacles and the débâcle of our society, to get over the affliction. The piece reflects the positive energy needed to ‘overcome’.”
For her part Brackenbury states;
“My hope is that our music will be uplifting to people and will invoke peace, love and justice in the world”.
Also lasting for a little over half an hour “Gypsy Softbread” is gentler and more impressionistic, with Bianco adopting more of a colourist’s role. The opening passages feature the chimes and shimmers of mallets on cymbals, the rustle of shakers and the sounds of Brackenbury’s pizzicato violin, or more likely viola - when she subsequently picks up the bow there’s a grainy resonance that suggests the latter. Here the duo’s explorations are more tentative, more concerned with creating atmosphere and texture than generating pure energy, which is not to imply that there’s a lack of intensity or purpose, indeed the duo’s improvising retains a certain edge and frisson throughout, even in its most impressionistic moments. Brackenbury reverts to the pizzicato technique, creating an almost koto like sound as she duets with Bianco on one one of the most absorbing passages of the entire piece. The bow then returns to usher in a more urgent and fractious passage, this followed by a more intimate set of string / percussion exchanges in which you can almost hear the protagonists thinking, with Brackenbury deploying both pizzicato and arco techniques.
At fifteen and a half minutes duration the closing “Assassin” is the shortest track on the album, a piece that combines the intimacy of “Gypsy Softbread” with the energy of the title track. The opening exchanges are both vigorous and responsive with Brackenbury responding to Bianco’s skittering snare and fizzing cymbals as the pair go head to head in a mutually satisfying duel that sees Brackenbury’s mercurial melodic lines answered by Bianco’s relentless percussive flow. Gradually the pair ramp the energy levels up until they finally approach the kinetic intensity of the earlier “Rising Up”. It’s a fascinating mix of Bianco’s free jazz polyrhythmic percussive whirl and Brackenbury’s consistently fluent and melodic improvised string lines, her playing even in this context informed by the melodic sensibilities of her folk and classical background. Having finally reached a peak of intensity the piece is resolved via a gentler, more impressionistic passage that sees Brackenbury deploying both pizzicato and arco sounds, including the eerie bowed drone that concludes the performance.
The digital version of the album also includes a remarkable sixteen and a half minute version of the classic Jimmy Webb song “Wichita Lineman” that combines a repeating piano motif with a skittering brushed drum groove, both of these played by Bianco I would guess. Brackenbury states the famous melody before embarking on a fascinating series of thematic variations, probing deeply but never entirely losing sight of the initial theme, and still retaining something of the exquisite melancholy that characterises Webb’s best, and arguably most famous, song.
Boasting the distinctive artwork of Julie Cole, this in turn based on the heron sculpture “Transition” by Abbie Lathe “Rising Up” represents a distinctive package. Even more distinctive is the music, a meeting between two curious musicians from different musical backgrounds who manage to blend beautifully to produce music that successfully combines energy with beauty and challenging improvisation with instinctive melody. Bianco Brackenbury is a highly effective merging of musical minds and features some of Faith Brackenbury’s most adventurous playing to date.
The improvised nature of the music won’t appeal to all ears, but nevertheless the duo’s sound is still readily accessible to most adventurous listeners. Now that live music is opening up again one suspects that the drums/strings duo of Bianco Brackenbury would also represent an intriguing and exciting live proposition.
This album is ready proof that some good things actually did come out of lockdown.
From Faith Brackenbury via email;
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Thank you for a fantastic review today- I’ve just read it. I really appreciate you spending so much time on it. Your in- depth work never fails to amaze me!