by Ian Mann
July 16, 2015
There's a real sense of a partnership of equals and of an ongoing dialogue as the duo conjure an astonishing variety of sounds out of their respective instruments.
Irene Kepl / Mark Holub
(Slam Records SLAMCD298 - Bar Code 5028386029823)
Drummer Mark Holub is best known as the American born, London based leader of the mighty Led Bib. In this capacity he has been a regular fixture on the Jazzmann web pages and we have also covered his collaborations with saxophonist Colin Webster, either as a duo or as a trio with the addition of Led Bib keyboardist Toby McLaren. Tim Owen also covered a 2010 performance at The Vortex by Mustard Pie, an all star aggregation that featured the rhythm sections of Led Bib (Holub and Liran Donin) and Polar Bear (Sebastian Rochford and Tom Herbert) fronted by the saxophone of Jan Kopinski.
Since 2012 Holub has divided his time between London and Vienna and has entered into collaborations with a number of Austrian musicians, among them guitarist, sonic experimenter and studio owner Chris Janka with whom he formed the band Blueblut together with theramin specialist Pamelia Kurstin. I was lucky enough to catch Blueblut live during their UK tour in November 2014 and also covered their début album “Hurts So Gut”. Their music is an exciting blend of jazz, improv, and avant rock leavened with a touch of irreverent, if sometimes childish humour. They’re well worth checking out.
One of the first people with whom Holub played after moving to Vienna was the classically trained violinist Irene Kepl. Despite being an award winning composer Kepl has felt herself increasingly drawn towards the world of freely improvised music and her duo with Holub has become an ongoing collaboration with the pair honing their rapport on club and festival gigs prior to this recording, which was made at Janka’s studio with the proprietor manning the mixing desk.
The album was released in January 2015 on British saxophonist George Haslam’s Oxfordshire based SLAM record label and it’s a recording that’s been sitting in my “to do” file for far too long. Apologies to all concerned for the late appearance of this review , but hey, better late than never.
The programme consists of twelve (mostly) short pieces ranging from hard grooving items reminiscent of Blueblut, or even Led Bib, to more abstract, impressionistic pieces with Kepl sometimes augmenting the sound of her violin by means of electronics. Drums and violin is an unusual instrumental duo combination and the two musicians find plenty to say within their chosen format.
Holub has said of the album;
“Irene was one of the first people I played with after relocating to Vienna from London in 2012. We met after I heard her with her string quartet and immediately hit it off musically, but it wasn’t obviously clear what exactly we were going to do together. After a few plays as a duo, it dawned on us that this was a great sound to explore. Playing in duo is always an exciting prospect, a chance to have a proper musical dialogue with just one person, but also it allows you to fully have the space to explore your own sound-world because of the openness in sound that a duo can bring. With this particular duo, with its slightly unusual instrumentation, the aforementioned things are of course true, but it also has the excitement that derives from it being an instrumental combo that is rarely heard which helps to enable us to approach it afresh each time, without preconceptions of what the music could or should sound like.
With the actual recording process I think we were able to capture the various approaches of the duo, from free-wheeling grooves, to abstract noise to beautiful soundscapes, and I look forward to continue working and developing this duo.”
The album begins with the brief “Break Pebbles” as the crash and clatter of Holub’s drums and percussion and the sometimes atonal scrapings of Kepl’s violin combine to give the impression of waves breaking roughly upon an imaginary shore.
“Planetarium im Quadrat” is more abstract with Kepl’s use of electronics and Holub’s cymbal shimmers evoking the sounds of deep space. Later the equally atmospheric sounds of Holub’s rolling toms are used almost as a melody device. It’s a genuinely evocative piece of music that wouldn’t be out of place on a sci-fi film soundtrack.
“On The Carousel” begins with Holub solo and coaxing a wide variety of sounds from his kit, the orthodox set up presumably augmented by a variety of small percussive devices and with Holub deploying a mix of sticks, brushes, mallets and bare hands. There are moments when Kepl’s violin is almost deployed as an additional percussion instrument as she strikes and scrapes the strings. As the piece gains momentum there is the sound of bowing too, but this is far from conventional as Kepl hacks a path through Holub’s dense forest of percussion. If this is a fairground ride it’s a very scary one. Undeniably thrilling though, genuine white knuckle stuff at times.
The sense that this is a genuine dialogue between equal partners is a constant throughout the album with Holub’s drums frequently assuming the lead as he is liberated from a strict time keeping role. This equality is perfectly illustrated by the title track which develops gradually and incrementally and with Holub’s drums always providing some sense of pulse and momentum however abstract the music might become. Kepl’s bowing ranges from almost subliminal electronically enhanced abstraction to demonic violence, complemented on every step of the way by Holub. Apparently the title “Tashendrache” means “Pocket Dragon”, this being the German slang for a cigarette lighter!
There’s no let up in the intensity on “Arachnid” which begins with eerie, spacey electronica plus complementary percussion before eventually exploding into frantic, multi-limbed life following a long, slow burn.
“Seifenblausen Bauen” features a similarly atmospheric intro with Holub’s chimes and mallet rumbles combining with Kepl’s almost subliminal bowing and extensive use of pizzicato techniques. The latter is a particularly good example of the use as violin as percussion, this is a track dominated by percussive sounds yet it never sounds like a drum solo in the conventional sense. The notion of dialogue is always there and although the piece is probably largely improvised it also sounds perfectly constructed.
Kepl’s violin is relatively more conventional on “A Day At The Beach” as her ferocious, staccato bowing is shadowed by the lively clatter of Holub’s drums. It’s still uncompromising stuff despite the sense of fun that the duo bring to the piece.
Following a frantic climax featuring Kepl’s frantic fiddling accompanied by the high speed rattle of Holub’s sticks on rims the piece segues into the more abstract “Finisteres Zeitfenster” with Kepl using a variety of extended techniques on her violin before culminating in a slightly more orthodox soaring bowed solo.
Kepl’s bowing is also heard to good effect on “Dancing Beetles”, one of the most melodic and immediately accessible items on the disc. Her initial staccato slashes evolve into a solo that floats appealingly above Holub’s fluid drum grooves before the piece finally ends with a passage of spacey abstraction featuring electronica and percussive ticks, this acting as a segue into the following “Hols Hackende Flecken”. This piece develops out of sci-fi style electronica and sparse drum grooves through a passage of effective pizzicato violin as Holub develops and elaborates the groove. Finally there’s some some stunning bowing as the piece undergoes a final change of pace and builds inexorably towards a climax.
The album concludes with two shorter pieces, both of them under the two minute mark. The first, “Emergency Broadcast System” features Kepl’s high register bowing and the chime of Holub’s cymbals but it’s over before it really has time to develop.
“Speed Date” exhibits something of the urgency implied by the title with Kepl’s busy and marginally more orthodox bowing augmented by Holub’s stop/start drum patterns. It’s actually one of the album’s more immediately accessible pieces but again is tantalisingly short.
“Taschendrache” is an uncompromising but thoroughly absorbing album and it’s one that has plenty to offer to the adventurous jazz listener. There’s a real sense of a partnership of equals and of an ongoing dialogue as the duo conjure an astonishing variety of sounds out of their respective instruments. It’s a record that demonstrates just what a fine all round drummer Mark Holub has become and is arguably his most mature album to date. Kepl is a perfect partner and although her name may be unfamiliar to British jazz audiences it’s clear that she is an adventurous musician who will be well worth keeping an eye on in the future.
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