Saturday, October 5, 2013

James Blackshaw & Lubomyr Melnyk - The Watchers (2013, Important Records)

Lubomyr Melnyk and James Blackshaw are musicians with recognizable and kindred styles of how they play their instruments. Lubomyr Melnyk plays notes on grand piano rapidly but softly, sustained, creating overtonal hum from which melodic layer emerges. James Blackshaw's style of playing his 12-string guitar has two strands to it - one is Takoma inspired finger-picking and second is overtonal tinkling - which together in long-form compositions give it the same feeling of perpetualness as can be found in Lubomyr Melnyk's music. One day they have met in The Vortex Jazz Café and stayed there for six hours improvising music together. The Watchers is a result of this meeting.

The opening Tascheter starts out with lightness and dazzle of the rising morning sun. It has a sense of effortlessness, ease of natural flow and mark of musical connection between both musicians. Even though there is this closeness you can feel the dissonance and small differences when their frequencies don't align perfectly which is natural for the first meeting with somebody you have a deep understanding for but you are not yet in tune with. There is a feeling of cautiousness in the collaborative process; around six minute mark you can hear stronger strums which you could interpret as a wishes for change but the song continues in the same vein and then just a subtle change in melody leads the narrative of the song to a simpler lullaby ending.

It would be simplified to say that Melnyk is providing a structure in the form of a melodic skeleton and Blackshaw is filling the blanks with fast-paced but soft overtonal playing. There is no leader and no follower in this duo - mostly they are walking in unison shoulder by shoulder. Both piano or guitar can be the main rhythmical guide and between slow strums or keystrokes there are chord explorations and other developments unfolding (rather than massive build-ups). Whether it is precise and detailed fingerpicking or fast but soft overtonal maze, James Blackshaw is using consistent tonal palette that enables him to change effortlessly from one style to another. The same goes for Lubomyr Melnyk who is focused on repetition and development of tonal phrases through variations.

There is one moment in Venant where it all could break down. But instead of parting with what was already built both musicians unflinchingly recover the balance. And this is what makes The Watchers so appealing - with their composed work you can easily fall victim to the hypnotic beauty of polished music but here there are distracting elements of chance and "mistakes". As when you start a sentence then stop and rephrase it or when you say something and it comes in a slightly false tone (but then your voice adjusts). So instead of a compositionally clean record we've got access to the raw materia in a creative process which gives the record a fullness of life.


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