How can musicians move music forward? By inventing new instruments – a tricky proposition – or learning to play old instruments in new ways. Gareth Davis & Frances-Marie Uitti take the latter path on Gramercy. Davis is billed as a “clarinet abuser”, although this is perhaps the wrong term, as no crime seems to have been committed against the instrument; instead, its fullest potential has been exposed. Davis doesn’t just play a note, and then another; he experiments with atonal scales, trills and percussive persuasions. Meanwhile, Uitti demonstrates her “twin bow technique”, playing the cello with two bows at once. As one might expect, the effect often sounds like the work of two cellists, especially given the album’s tempered stereo mastering. Combined, the two present an album that is engagingly unusual. The bigger surprise is that neither performer goes off on their own improvisational tangent. Each listens and responds while playing, an extremely difficult feat given the intensity of the performances.
The album challenges listeners to accompany the duo into greater depths as it progresses: a relatively accessible opening piece, followed by two edgier pieces, and then a 21-minute adventure. The curiousity of that opening piece (“2 am”) is that it is so lilting, lovely, and tonal, as if Davis & Uitti are saying, “Look, we know how to do this too, we just prefer to go off-road.” This piece would nestle nicely alongside Greg Haines’ recent Digressions. Having established a home base, the duo then moves on. “Felt” draws out its initial notes, then flutters, alighting and then disembarking from minor keys, refusing to accommodate preconceptions of scale. The track then descends to more thoughtful arenas, subverting expectations yet again by refusing to provide a climax. “Smoke” sounds exactly like its title, dark and low, and “Cold Call” is its shuffling aftermath.
A 21-minute track can be a risk or a declaration. “Detour” is the whirlpool toward which all the other tracks float, the four before and the two behind. On this piece, Davis & Uitti provide an unrushed, unabashed glimpse of what they do best, exploring sonic properties without regard to obvious melody or hook. By this time, the listener is either in or out. “Detour” is akin to the conversation before the commitment, in which one or both parties say, “There’s something you should know about me first.” The only nod to convention is that it starts slowly; it’s not something one would whistle or hum. The midsection is nearly silent, a cave in which Davis & Uitti scrawl their petroglyphs. This makes the stark emergence all the more memorable, a dance of survival and blood.
Two tracks later, the pair present a second extended piece, but after “Detour”, “Stained” seems to operate as a coda, a reminder of the distance traveled from first selection to last. Both instruments rise to an agitated state before collapsing on the threshold of the ninth minute. The long slide to silence is a contemplative gift: an example of restraint in the most welcome of places. Improvisational as Gramercy may be, it is also intentional. By the end, the album’s title is justified: gramercy is an archaic expression signifying gratitude and surprise. (Richard Allen)
Release Date: May 4