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Lean Left - The Ex Guitars meet Nilssen-Love/Vandermark Duo, Vol. 2

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Artist: Lean Left

Album: The Ex Guitars meet Nilssen-Love/Vandermark Duo, Vol. 2

Label: Smalltown Superjazz

Review date: Mar. 17, 2011

A year after the first volume of this issue appeared, here comes the second. The two are recognisably a matched pair. Visually, Vol. 2 is the negative of Vol. 1 — white where it was black and vice versa — and exactly the same jocular sleeve notes are used on both. Musically, the set-up is the same. As described in the album title, guitarists Andy Moor and Terrie Hessells of eclectic Dutch punk band The Ex are joined by the well-established improvising duo of Ken Vandermark on tenor saxophone and B-flat clarinet and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. The music was recorded on The Ex’s home territory, live in concert at Amsterdam’s Bimhuis in March 2008.

Where the first volume included shorter tracks, this one consists of two extended tracks — although, as before, they are not really distinct tracks but convenient indexing points in the continuous stream of music. The opener “Knuckle Cracking Party” only features the guitars, with Moor on the right channel and Hessells on the left. Beginning in subdued fashion, they gradually exchange small gestural sounds and fractured chords, displaying a working knowledge of post-Derek Bailey guitar vocabulary. As a duo, they have the great benefit of being compatible and empathetic. Improvising throughout, they sound familiar and comfortable with each other. Slowly their music gathers momentum and increases in volume as they engage in a back-and-forth dialogue, one leading while the other acts as support with the roles frequently being exchanged. Their interactions create a complex soundscape full of polyrhythms and textures that is rooted in rock music, but goes far beyond it.

That opener serves as the hors d’oeuvres for the main course that follows. The album’s 12-and-a-half-minute mark signals the thunderously dramatic entry of Nilssen-Love’s drums, and the start of “Chunk of Lung.” That track title relates to those jokey sleeve notes by Vandermark in which he addresses these comments to Moor, “Did any saxophone make it to the hard drive? I think there’s still a chunk of my lung stuck to the floor of the Bimhuis stage; there’s a limit to what a person can do without a volume knob.”

The essence of those comments captures the distinguishing trait that the four produce together — it can get loud and crowded. When it does, each of the four instruments sounds as if it is battling to be heard, creating a thrilling, adrenalin-charged atmosphere. Remarkably, the four do not sound as if they are battling each other, but rather battling their own capacities to play louder. As Vandermark notes, it is toughest on him, as he has no volume knob and has to blow flat out — hence “Chunk of Lung.” Nonetheless, he manages to produce a steady stream of coherent riffs and variations — somewhere between a jazz soloist and a one-man horn section. Nilssen-Love matches such energy and creativity; he is well-practiced in generating propulsive rhythmic drive, and it shows here.

Inevitably, the four do not manage to maintain their relentless barrage for the full half-hour duration of the track. There are quiescent periods when the guitars shift down a gear or two, leaving Vandermark and Nilssen-Love in the spotlight as a duo. Vandermark’s switch of horns from tenor saxophone to clarinet lowers the temperature, too, although his fluency and creativity are unaffected by the switch. The album reaches a barnstorming climax as everyone moves back to overdrive and plays hell-for-leather. The recording ends before we get to hear the audience reaction, but it is certain that they stood, whooped and cheered for some time. Deservedly so.

By John Eyles

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