Sinners, rather than Saints is only the fourth meeting on record of English bassist-composer Barry Guy and Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson over almost two decades, and for that alone this vinyl-only release on Lithuanian imprint No Business should be more than a curio. The duo format is an interesting one, which the bassist previously visited with Evan Parker on a pair of LPs for the SAJ and Jazz & Now labels, but apart from a surface similarity of instrumentation, Sinners is a different animal. At this point in his career, Gustafsson’s mettle seems firmly planted in damaged punk-jazz fist-pumping with The Thing, a meaty, Nordic heir apparent to the Wuppertal axis of free improvisation. Guy, on the other hand, is a painter of lush sonorities on pedal-assisted five-string double bass, and though his lines can be scumbled and frantic, texture and orchestration are among the first-reached tools in his arsenal.
Gustafsson opens the set on alto flutophone, a delicate ocarina-like metallic warble offset by col legno harmonics and open-string rattle below the bridge. Guy’s rhythmic wood and metal knocks provide a deep backing for the reedman’s flight, which quickly peels paint before returning to whispery depths. It’s a hell of an overture, though the bassist’s one man orchestra of excited strings is considerably more colorful than his partner’s screaming reeds. Guy’s solo “Odyssey” is an extraordinarily romantic poem of technique and physicality, fleet plucks reminiscent of a tonal Derek Bailey underpinned by electronic drones. It’s possible that with such essays, Guy might be the Eberhard Weber of contemporary improvisation, the way his pedal-fleshed chords softly splay. On “Sleep Leaper” he builds a mass of multiple stops on the low end whilst furiously working reedy, high ponticello in delicate but ferocious play of grand gesture and teasing detail, a sound to behold. Fitting such a solo is dedicated to the painter Alan Davie, a longtime friend to several UK improvisers.
It’s unfortunate that the duos don’t hold quite the same majesty, for Guy’s ability to find nearly every sonic nook on the bass is nothing if not a boon to conversation. But a spar for tenor and bass like “Flisk the Thrapple” finds most of the risks taken at lower decibel levels as Guy’s arco scrapes and contrasts of muted and colorful pizzicato encircle Gustafsson’s brutish squawk. By the last cut, the pair seems to have found common footing, morose baritone trudge and slap-tonguing mating with athletic bowing and flying horsehair. Settling into low, steely lines, one is reminded of the blackened snow of Peter Brötzmann’s 14 Love Poems (FMP, 1984), a romance of inscrutable grit. While hard-won and mostly at odds, Sinners is a worthwhile document of two of Europe’s most estimable improvisers.
~ Clifford Allen