Carl Ludwig Hübsch, Oren Marshall, John Butcher and John Edwards at Cafe Oto, 6/3/12

Hubsch

The fact that I don’t see many tubas in their natural habitats these days led me to wonder whether it had become some sort of endangered species. Let’s face it, it has never been the most practical of instruments – a bit too heavy for the marching band, too big for the gigging musician to take on public transport, too expensive to make it a suitable starting point for a learner musician, and perhaps too heavily outnumbered by the massed ranks of strings in the classical setting to make it a viable career proposition there. The butt of many an orchestra’s joke, that beast comes with a lot of baggage.

While they would once have been commonly used in jazz bands in lieu of a double bass, I’ve only seen it perform this function a couple of times myself, hence my sense that it may be falling into desuetude. If pressed, I could probably name just two jazz tubists…and both of them were playing here at Café Oto on the same bill. Carl Ludwig Hübsch stems from the German free jazz scene, where he hauls his huge horn alongside the likes of Alex Dorner in his Primordial Soup band. Oren Marshall, the other, is a semi-regular feature of the London music scene (through membership of the likes of Big Air, the Byron Wallen Quartet and Sons Of Kemet, as well as numerous solo improvisations), and is tuba professor for Trinity College of Music. They were joined at Café Oto by the saxophones of John Butcher and the sympathetic bass of John Edwards.

As discussed, the tuba has some not inconsiderable limitations. However, the paradox that limitations can encourage a greater degree of freedom proved very much to be the case at this concert. Not only were the instrument’s negatives (that immense size and lack of portability) turned into positives (physical humour), but both of these tubists are keen to explore some of the less obvious musical applications of the instrument. In doing so, they were encouraged by their companions – neither Edwards nor Butcher give much of a toss for convention, and have an interest in sounds which takes them way beyond the traditional melodic approach to their respective instruments.

A pair of opening duets between Hübsch and Edwards, then Hübsch and Butcher, were sonically fascinating. Instead of squabbling in the same melodic sound space as the bass player, Hübsch used some homemade mutes to distort his sound, the buzz of a biscuit tin disrupting Edwards’s crisper vibrations, and sending him chasing the crumbs in new directions. In response to some of Butcher’s magnificent textural constructions (his controlled split notes were sublime), Hübsch dismantled his instrument – off came the mouthpiece and valves, out came the slides – so he could blow airily through the pipes and clang bits of metal on the side of the dismembered instrument.

The duet between Hübsch and Marshall was extraordinary, as funny as it was technically impressive. The instrument’s more tangible characteristics were highlighted humorously, with Hübsch swinging the heavy instrument high above his head and poking his head into the bell, and Marshall wrestling with his larger version centre stage. At one point he took it for a walk, dragging it across Oto’s concrete floor, relishing the grinding noise it produced. Marshall’s un-professorial air, and physical approach, extended to him making some sounds through the instrument’s coiled bowels which sounded like less savoury bodily functions, and the set closed with him chuckling filthily to himself through the mouthpiece.

The closing ensemble performance was remarkable for its restraint. Given the collective weight of instrumentation on that stage, there was little volume – but lots of intensity. For the most part, this quietest of quartets explored texture and timbre: the sound of breath against brass, of hands against wood. Only at the end did Hübsch – who had been in danger of slipping into silence – erupt with a squall of noise, rasping through tubing to produce something like static, as if his horn was the amplifier for a disconcerting tangle of detuned radios. It was a fitting ending to a night which had done so much to challenge our preconceptions. Perhaps we need to call in the conservationists, for on this evidence, the tuba can still play a most vital role in the jazz ecosystem.

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Maurizio Ravalico and Oren Marshall, In Thunder Rise (Not-Applicable)

In Thunder Rise

Maurizio Ravalico is an Italian percussionist, and Oren Marshall an English brass player. Which should make In Thunder Rise a duo album, and most definitely the first conga and tuba duo album I’ve covered on this site (I’m pretty confident on that one). But look a little closer: there is a third name below the two headliners on the front cover of this new double album – that of Isambard Khroustaliov, the alter ego of Icarus’s Sam Britton, and one of the founders of the Not-Applicable label. Britton’s role is an interesting and important one – he was responsible for recording the two instrumentalists in a variety of outdoor settings, and for facilitating the introduction of a fourth, unbilled player into the lineup: the city of London itself.

In Thunder Rise was recorded in a number of different locations in south east London, including in a park, in a foot tunnel, by a busy road, near a train line, and next to the river. Each of these brings its own acoustic properties, and its own particular set of background noises, and the manner in which the album was recorded accentuates these. Microphones were fixed above the instruments, but Britton was equipped with a further set which he could use to record whatever he liked – making decisions in real time, moving about the space, pointing the microphones at the instruments, and then towards the sky, to the traffic, at people passing by, and listening to other more industrial sounds, creating a three-dimensional map of the place, inserting the listener at the heart of the process, and also blurring the lines between the real and the recorded. I’ve listened to this album on headphones outdoors several times, and found myself pausing to look for birds that aren’t there, or – more alarmingly – to avoid being hit by a thankfully non-existent reversing truck.

But there is more to this than the interaction between listener and location. Lest we forget, there are congas and tubas in here too. Ravalico and Marshall are determinedly unconventional in their approaches to their respective instruments on In Thunder Rise, as often as not not eschewing rhythm or melody in favour of a focus on tone and timbre – for example Ravalico brushing the head of his drums, or Marshall blowing airily through his instrument. This is because In Thunder Rise is – as if this wasn’t obvious enough already – pretty far from being a conventional duo album. As much as they are interacting with each other, they are responding to their environment: reacting to weather conditions with drones, creating the sound of a passing train with deep pulses, simulating mobile phone signal interference with staccato phrases, joining in others’ conversations, or even just evoking sensations of space, or of danger. This is far more than just an album of duets, this is an ensemble piece both featuring and dedicated to London, to its geography, to its networks, to its people, and to its moods. It is an album born of a love that cannot be shaken by downpours, by filthy streets, by the potential for violence, or even by missed buses.

In Thunder Rise is released on October 15 on Not-Applicable. The label is also having a bit of a festival in Berlin in mid September. More details on their website.