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Ambarchi / Fennesz / Pimmon / Rehberg / Rowe - Afternoon Tea

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Artist: Ambarchi / Fennesz / Pimmon / Rehberg / Rowe

Album: Afternoon Tea

Label: Black Truffle

Review date: Jan. 14, 2010

Afternoon Tea was originally released in 2000 on the German Ritornell label. Back then, it consisted of two studio-recorded tracks totaling 44 minutes. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it can be seen as a seminal album in the growth of electro-acoustic improvisation, not least because it brought together guitarists Oren Ambarchi, Christian Fennesz and Keith Rowe for the first time.

If one were putting together a Pete Frame-style family tree of early electro-acoustic improv (eai), this album would have a key position, somewhere between Peter Rehberg, Fennesz and Rowe first teaming up in MIMEO in 1997, and Fennesz, Ambarchi and Rowe joining forces with Toshimaru Nakamura to form the eai supergroup Four Gentlemen of the Guitar (a.k.a. 4G) in 2004.

Those two original tracks still hold great appeal a decade after they were recorded. The music slowly emerges from near silence, steadily increasing in volume; from then on, it doesn’t venture near the threshold of audibility. Everything evolves gently, without any sudden shifts or shocks, giving it a pleasing ambient quality. But it is never wallpaper music; with the contrasting sounds from the five players overlaid in a multi-layered collage, there is enough variety and detail to provide fresh, interesting listening every time.

The music is dominated by electronic tones rather than recognizable guitar sounds. Compared to later work such as 4G, which became increasingly electronic, Afternoon Tea still has room for guitars, albeit prepared or treated guitars that then produce electronic sounds. Just occasionally, we do get to hear the reassuring sound of strings being struck; sometimes it sounds inadvertent or accidental. The most pleasing passage occurs in the later stages of “Afternoon Tea 2,” where a steadily rising low frequency drone creates a gathering sense of unease and an edge of drama.

With reissues of classic rock and jazz releases, particularly those by best-selling and “collectible” artists, it has become obligatory to include unreleased tracks or takes. The only device that rivals this in shifting units is the “newly remastered” tag, which implies that the sound is better than ever before, important for “classic” recordings of a certain vintage. Even in the iPod age, this still seems to work. To date, re-releases of improvised music have rarely succumbed to such ploys. Instead, as it was often released on small independent labels, sometimes in limited edition runs that sold out quickly, scarcity has helped sell re-releases of improv.

This release, on Ambarchi’s own Black Truffle label, uses both ploys: it was remastered from the original tapes, as well as adding three unreleased tracks--two of them newly discovered live recordings. There is no cause for cynicism, though. This re-release is highly valuable for making the (long out-of-print) original tracks available again. The additional tracks are compatible with the style and quality of the originals and serve to extend the playing time to over 68 minutes.

Afternoon Tea is a period piece - but who cares when the period was this good? Sometimes, it is only by looking back that we see clearly the present. This album helps us understand where improvisation has gone in the past decade.

By John Eyles

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