Some Reviews


“Improvisations: Series One” Graham Clark, Stephen Grew (GAS Records)


“With a developed vocabulary from Bach to the present, violinists and pianists have a rich tradition to bring to free improvisation. On improvisations series one violinist Graham Clark and pianist Stephen Grew operate within a highly traditional definition of instrumental function and vocabulary. The style bridges high modernism and post-modernism, and you’d be excused for thinking at many points that you’d wandered into a recital devoted to newly discovered works by Bartok, Webern, and Stockhausen. That’s not the duo’s limitation but its character, a complex dialogue that makes little reference to the usual associations of improvised music. The 14 tracks are simply numbered, and there’s nothing here to suggest that Clark was once a member of the rock band Gong. When the two alternate percussive effects as accompaniment to one another on “No. 7,” or Grew uses some piano preparation on the “No. 13,” it actually comes as a surprise. What the music possesses is a narrow brilliance, by which I intend nothing negative. The numerous short tracks have the taut discipline and spiky clarity of etudes, while the nearly 20-minute “No. 9” extends that clarity of execution and design to a startlingly dense expressionism so purposefully executed that it sound like it’s being read very quickly. Grew’s work is new to me, but like Clark he’s an improviser of the first order.”


Stuart Broomer, "Points of Departure"


CADENCE Review of  “Improvisations: Series One” Graham Clark, Stephen Grew (GAS Records)" (PDF)


Graham Clark & Stephen Grew

Improvisations Series One
Gas gcimprov1

Jonathan Chen

Jonathan Chen Orchestra

Asian Improv AIR 0071

Although the instrument most identified with traditional Western art music, over the past 100 years the violin’s range and timbre have been extended, with it increasingly taking on new sonic roles.

This change is illuminated on these duo sessions – one American and one British. While each has much to recommend it – and both take as a starting point the discordant free-jazz fiddling of players such as Billy Bang and Leroy Jenkins – there’s a lot more than separates them besides instrumentation. Here Manchester-based violinist Graham Clark is partnered by the piano of Lancaster’s Stephen Grew, while Middletown, Conn.-based violinist Jonathan Chen’s so-called orchestra is limited to himself and one of Chicago’s busiest and most versatile bass players, Tatsu Aoki.

With its 14 untitled improvisations lasting from fewer than 1½ minutes to nearly 20, Grew, who has recorded with bassoonist/saxophonist Mick Beck, and Clark – a member of psychedelic jazz-rock band Gong as well as improv sessions with the likes of drummer Paul Hession – delves deeply into the realm of abstract rock, jazz and mixed-media settings. Thus the rhythmic impetus is muted...

(review of Chen and Aoki cut)

...Grew and Clark rely on responsive counterpoint improvisation rather than call-and-response. Although lyrical passages are minimal, never is there sonic coarseness for its own sake. For instance, with Grew’s kinetic note clusters backing him, Clark sound a glissandi that leads to a sky-high pitch, but does so without the line turning atonal.

For his part the pianist’s fantasias can comprise a variety of strategies in response to the violinist’s thin spiccato scrapes and sul ponticello plunks. During one duet his arpeggio curves follow slaps on the instrument’s wood and what sounds like paper being crumbled. The finale is a contrapuntal duet between plucked violin strings and stopped internal piano strings.

Unified rather than experimental even the shorter tracks find the two investigating more than one tonality or timbre. Meanwhile, “No. 9” – the bravura, nearly 20-minute CD centerpiece – has enough scope to almost be a multi-movement suite.

Beginning with widely spaced processional measures from Grew, Clark’s responses are kinetic, repeated and frenetic. Turning to shuffle bowing, the fiddler appears determined to play “Flight of the Bumblebee”, that is until the pianist’s fanciful impressionistic accompaniment turns edgy. The subsequent string variations swell inviting the intersection of keyboard cadenzas. Clark’s scratching out of a simple nursery-rhyme-like theme brings out a dynamic contrasting melody from Grew. Then the pattern is repeated in rever(s)e. Maintaining the veloce interface, the two eventually meld high-frequency arpeggios from Grew and moderated and lyrical glissandi from Clark.

Both discs offer extended essays in violin virtuosity – with each string avatar mated with an equally clued-in partner. Further fiddle tonal experiment, as well as ancillary redefinitions of the hoary instrument’s role within free music will likely arise from these duo members

-- Ken Waxman August 19, 2009





Clark / Thorne / Fell | GAS

By Robert Spencer

All About Jazz

In the liner notes to this unique recording, violinist Graham Clark explains that his trio's idea was to "produce some beautiful and interesting music without having written anything beforehand. This is a 'warts and all' recording."

Maybe, but it is largely wart-free. Clark, bassist Jon Thorne and drummer Milo Fell are remarkably attuned to one another. Clark, as the lead voice, is a consistently melodic and pleasingly inventive violinist. Like the pianistics of his old boss Keith Tippett, occasionally his lines recall folk melodies. Always they are tonal and catchy. On "System X" he plays with some long tones as Fell pounds out replies, but that is about as ear-stretching as this disc gets. This is a disc to play for someone who asserts that free improvisation can never be conventionally beautiful or immediately pleasing music for those who are not looking for a catharsis or an experience of high art.

Moreover, this trio is groove-heavy: "Bang On!" and "Dagobert" are funky (on "Dagobert" listen to Clark wind polyrhythms around the beat with bursts I would describe as Ornetteish except for the fact that this man can really play violin). "Second Thought" is bright. "When in Rome" is rattling and bouncy; Clark again briefly recalls Ornette at the beginning, but quickly plays lines far beyond anything Mr. Harmolodic's violin ever dreamed of.

All three musicians are masters of their instruments. Clark is everywhere on his violin, but he never loses Thorne or Fell. I searched for Billy Bang and Leroy Jenkins in his sound, and while they both no doubt deserve nods, Clark is no one's man but his own. On "Lonestar" he and the bassist weave a lovely ballad that, despite its unsettlingly abrupt ending, I was going to pick out as the highlight until I got to the other ballad, the title track "Isthmus." On this track Clark's stated intention to bridge "a gap between free improvisation and jazz" (!) reaches its apotheosis.

On the more adventurous side is "Buffalo Wings," where Fell drums out a tricky palette for Clark to work; he navigates it back to swingville with particular aplomb. "The Secret Shortbread" has Thorne working over a powerful ostinato pattern courtesy of Thorne.

Fresh and pleasant from start to finish, Isthmus is a new look at what top-flight musicians can accomplish with free improvisation. Highly recommended.

Style:Mainstream/Bop/Hard Bop/Cool
Published: January 01, 1998