Wednesday, January 24, 2018

CD Review: Stephen Dydo & Alan Sondheim - Dragon and Phoenix

Stephen Dydo & Alan Sondheim
Dragon and Phoenix

ESP-Disk' made the world safe for outsider musicians. Albert Ayler, the Fugs, the Godz, Erica Pomerance, Frank Lowe -  they were all given a platform by the late Bernard Stollman to present their art to a populace that would listen. Even after having talked to Mr. Stollman for a substantial amount of time, I'm not totally sure why he released such a massive discography equally stocked with great things and questionable works by people like folk singer Tony Snell or a studio-only noisy project called Cromagnon. But he did, and we're all the better for it.

Alan Sondheim got in on the ground floor with ESP, releasing Ritual All 7-70 in 1967. He played an array of instruments (including koto, English horn and percussion) in a series of improvisations by a small ensemble. A second album apparently focused on electronic music and oscillations. Not exactly a jazz music, and more like someone with a eye toward what would later be called world music, Sondheim was just the kind of iconoclast for an imprint like ESP.

When the label came back to life, Sondheim was there, releasing Cutting Board in 2014. Accompanied by two saxophonists, he improvised on 13 different instruments that ranged from chromatic harmonica to sarangi and cura (stringed instruments from India and Turkey, respectively). And there were only 13 tracks on the album.

Dragon and Phoenix reduces the instrumental arsenal to seven, with emphasis on the qin, a Chinese stringed instrument with a history that can be traced back three millennia, according to some literature. Stephen Dydo, former president of the New Yokr Qin Society, bonded with Sondheim over each gentleman's collection of exotic instruments, and they decided to record a series of duets. Dydo plays viola and banjo as well as qin on the 16 tracks. Sondheim also picks them up, along with guzheng, rababa, erhu and madal.

The improvisations are titled using characters from the Chi'ien Tzu Wen. In addition to a symbol, each has a word, with a complementary term in the following track that combines to form an abstract poem ("Heaven and earth/ black and yellow/ space and time...") Each piece has a gentle quality, even in the rare instances where the strings get a little frantic. Dydo and Sondheim play melodies built on the same root,.and even though the time feels loose and free, their parallel melodies move in conjunction with one another. When they bend notes, the music often sounds closer to blues than to a more microtonal music. At the same time, the timbre of the instruments really give the music a lot of its intrigue. The best example comes in the cross-pollination of the banjo and qin in "Yu."

The big question lingers through most of the album is who's playing what. Both musicians are panned to separate channels, perhaps not severely, but enough to notice. With Sondheim playing everything that Dydo plays, and more, it's hard to find a solid answer to the question. Dydo might be a more traditional qin player, but Sondheim is no dilettante on it either. Finally, the mystery is solved in track 15, "Lie," when Sondheim plays the madal, a hand drum. It almost feels like they've been toying with us the whole time and only through patient listening does the answer come.

Dragon and Phoenix, named for the sound holes in the qin, might not be an easy album to digest, at least initially. It has the raw, immediate quality of ESP releases of yore, but there are sonic and harmonic nuances rise to the surface with deeper investigation.

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