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Post-Guitar : Roger Smith & John Russell on Emanem

Life must be quite vexing for British free improvising guitarists operating in the wake and shadow cast by Derek Bailey's long spidery reach. Establishing a style independent from the abiding influence of the aforementioned elder statesman of idiosyncratic fretwork is nigh impossible, but there are brave souls who try just the same. John Russell and Roger Smith are two such stringsmiths. Both men readily acknowledge the breadth of Bailey's influence, but this pair of discs shows each one to be decidedly his own man when it comes to the intricacies and possibilities of solo guitar improvisation.

An original member of John Stevens' Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Smith is by rights a peer of Bailey's and both improvisers developed their individual styles somewhat contemporaneously. But while Bailey's fecundity is now legendary, Smith chose a more reclusive path, appearing on a comparative handful of recordings (most for the Emanem label) and maintaining a relatively low profile when it came to public performances. Green Wood gathers tracks from a trio of tapes recorded in Smith's kitchen and as such includes ambient house noises, such as the whir of a central heating system, in several instances. His decision to approach his strings sans pick also contributes to the intimate feel of the performances.

Compiler Martin Davidson (who also incidentally ascribed titles to the pieces) makes mention of Smith's Spanish tunings and these sonorities lend a guiding lyricism to his improvisations that colors even his most fevered and abstract fingerings. It's never a case of plinking for plonk's sake. Each piece dissolves into its successor with demarcations commonly subsumed into an inclusive programmatic whole. Several tracks cease abruptly, momentarily disrupting the illusion of contiguity, but isolating one piece from the next is an exercise likely to diminish the listening experience rather than demystify it. The better approach is to allow the tracks to unfold independent of the rigors of picayunish dissection.

Smith's sound much of the time is precise and delicate, but retains a tensile directness that resists the easy impulse to stray into obtuse meanderings. He capitalizes effectively on the natural echophonics of his instrument, holding notes in the air in a manner that tellingly evinces Bailey's signature volume pedal swells. Semblances of hooking chords skirt around the fringes, but this is music that can easily retreat into the background if one doesn't pay careful attention to the action as it unfolds. Let the ears stray for even a few seconds and the labyrinth of carefully threaded lines can lose its linear focus. Shorter interludes intersperse amongst the longer excursions and effectively vary the terrain while simultaneously providing passages for listeners to regain their bearings. One thing seems succinctly made certain by this intimate recital. Smith's powers of improvisation have been little hindered by his advanced years and less visible stature on the European performance scene.

John Russell, who is several years Smith's senior, has favored a more rigorous performance schedule over the years. Frequent collaborations with Evan Parker, John Butcher and other high profile British improvisers have augmented his discography considerably since the Seventies. From Next to Last is not his first solo guitar foray, but it's a fitting continuation of his prowess in this arena of expression. All the tracks save "Mopomoso", which was taped in concert at London's Red Room performance space, were recorded in Davidson's lounge. Again the informal surroundings add to the flavor of spontaneity and intimacy. The cover photo interestingly depicts him cradling what on first glance appears to be a hollow body electric model, but as the sounds of the disc soon reveal, all of the improvisations that make up the program are entirely acoustic. Davidson states in the liner notes that Russell has opted for acoustic strings exclusively since 1977.

Compared to Smith, Russell's approach seems less consciously concise, his fingerings more craggy and crenellated with wide open spaces plugged between them, perhaps due in part to his use of a plectrum. His figures are often shard-like and prickly, suggesting tightly wound wiry spindles and recalling a different facet of the Bailey prism refracted by his own beam of creative light. The results are sparser in feel and texture and require more listener patience to plumb and connect. At times his peregrinations feel almost like an exercise in 'hunt and peck' string foraging, but Russell's logical patterns gradually reveal themselves as far from random. His frequent punctuating strums, placed strategically as bookends to particularly knotted braids of notes, add both to the tension and dynamism of the pieces.

Russell also differs from Smith in his preference for lengthier improvisatory voyages. The extended lengths of the tracks necessitate greater patience on the part of the listener, but Russell sounds cognizant of this from the onset. When a particular direction starts offering diminishing returns he wisely switches up and moves along a fresh trajectory. Versatility counts as much as virtuosity in such settings and Russell uses elements of both to sustain interest over the long haul. Bailey's influence may loom large, but what stands out on these discs is the staunch individualism of two artists. Both Russell and Smith have been at their respective games for decades and each man has honed an individual style that guides the way in these solitary and highly idiosyncratic sessions.