Blowing thick darkness, cheery reed-chatter and diva moans with equal facility, Marty Walker has earned himself a New Music name as a leading light in bass clarinet. Over eighty pieces by diverse composers have been written specifically for his particular gifts, and he’s effectively the in-house reedsman for many of the “California school” cadre of composers. For ‘Dancing On Water’ – his first release under his own name on Cold Blue Music – the California school returns the favours. Works from five of its members – the blissful voice-music of Daniel Lentz, the plotted-out ellipses of Michael Byron, Jim Fox’s expansive impressionism, Michael Jon Fink’s lonely, romantic grace-of-few-words and Peter Garland’s percussion-slanted Native American leanings – all juxtapose in different ways with different aspects of Marty’s interpretative approach.
On several of these pieces, Marty gets to stow away his bass clarinet (along with all of its invites to the New Music party) and bring his B-flat clarinet out from under its cousin’s shadow. The close-up duets of Peter Garland’s two-part Dancing On Water sets Walker down next to William Winant and David Johnson’s four-handed marimba. The music neatly folds Mexican folk melodies into minimalist discipline: the marimba clinks with sharp solemnity, both childlike and gamelan-esque. It’s a wily dance of toys, slicing the simple cadences up with unpredictable yet precise spaces. While the clarinet traces similar curves up through the arpeggios, Marty invests it with warmth plus infinitesmal bluesy slides and fades from small-group jazz: a wink in the midst of discipline. Moonlight is the meditation afterwards – a tremolo marimba twinkling like water underneath a much sleepier, dreamier clarinet, Marty coaxing utter expressiveness out of Garland’s clipped material.
On Daniel Lentz’s efflorescent Song(s) Of The Sirens, Marty’s ten overdubbed clarinets are matched by ten overdubbed pianos (played by Bryan Pezzone, another Cold Blue loyalist). But rather than being slaved to a rigid percussive regimentation, all twenty instruments are worked into Lentz’s familiar fascination with overlaid, overlapping vocal fragments. A sensuous undulation of slightly disfocussed pitches are linked by Pezzone’s summery, waterfalling spirals of virtuoso piano; a squadron of tiny icicles falling on the ear.
Amy Knoles’ sighing, narcotised voice (doppelgangered and folded into blurry harmonies and elisions, stacked like sated bodies) provides the siren’s role. This reaches us as a meandering stream of single spoken words – “lips”, “let”, “love”, “air”, “sweet”; “to”, “our”, “listen”, “touch”, “voices”, “you” – all of which are lifted and displaced from their sentences, suggesting an erotic, subliminal hypnosis. As digital manipulation slowly brings the intent into focus, full sentences and melodies coalesce from the haze. Marty’s role here, though, is simply as one (or ten) of the ensemble dreamers, voicing Lenz’s drowsy vision via the clarinet’s sleepy yawning tones. By the time of the stirring, ecstatic finale of piano rolls rumbling out of the trance, he’s not even there anymore.
In the end, it remains the bass clarinet that provides the best bridge between Marty Walker and the composers who seek him out. It’s on that instrument that his expressiveness achieves its most fascinating levels. Certainly it’s fascinated Michael Byron, whose composition Elegant Detours has the most obsessive interest in Marty’s abilities. Byron, however, seems more interested in Marty Walker as a performance mechanism rather than as an emoter. Trapped inside an implied run up a three-octave whole-tone scale, Elegant Detours scurries in super-compressed bursts to explore the possible patterns available. A workout of bass clarinet extremes (from tiny puffs of air to sweeps across its whole range) it ends in lung-bustingly sustained wails knifing the attention to the wall, almost physically painful to listen to. Marty rises superbly to the technical challenge, but it’s frantically clinical. The music seems to feast on itself; like competitive weightlifting, or like laying bets on the frantic mice attempting to escape from a lab maze.
Using far fewer games of structure, Jim Fox demonstrates that he understands the empathy in Marty’s playing. Fox usually works with quiet, beautifully ominous nightscapes and slow-creeping tonalities, and his piece – Among Simple Shadows – is no exception. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith blows a transparent and hushed last-post of a tune, which Marty shadows like the last hum resonating from the throat of a gospel bass. Bryan Pezzone’s piano flaps weightlessly in the wind, and casts anxious repeating clots of melody after the mingled brass and woodwind as they move through a dark-blue spectrum of emotions from quiet grief to undefinable hope.
Of all the composers, Rick Cox might have the most fellow feeling for Marty Walker. After all, throughout On Tuesday that’s his own contra-alto clarinet playing in counterpoint to Marty’s bass model. This chokingly slow four-movement duet has more than a tinge of swamp-blues to it – like the last notes restlessly clinging onto the grass tussocks after the funeral procession is long gone and the coffin rests in its mausoleum, floating above the bayou. With both instruments burring and smearing towards the bottom of their ranges, there’s a sense of exhaustion. As with much to do with the blues, there’s also a feeling of unfinished business.
David Johnson (on vibraphone this time) returns to help Marty tackle Michael Jon Fink’s micro-concerto As Is Thought/Aurora. This time, they make a trio with orchestral harpist Susan Allen. A tense set of precise unison arpeggios, venturing warily out into space, are connected and soothed by Marty, whose jazz-inflected way with the shaping of his bridging phrases counters the music-box abruptness of the other instruments. As the piece’s initial trepidation melts, like the dissolution of fear, Allen’s harp comes more to the fore. Each instrument softens, progressively handing the others a tiny cadence of notes to repeat – a canon which clambers on like hands swapping grip-space on a rope, continuing to move outwards.
Overall, ‘Dancing On Water’ reaffirms Marty Walker’s excellence as an interpretative musician, providing a set of multiple masques – or masks – for him to excel in. Still, I’m left uncomfortably whetted and slightly unsatisfied. His generous illumination of the music of others draws me into hankering after other aspects of his musicality – the creator, the improviser; the Marty Walker who’s drawn on his own music to provide that illumination. Hints of this are dotted all over ‘Dancing On Water’ in every cunningly bent note, in every hint of intelligence drawn from outside – even in the times when he steps back into the ensemble, upstaged on his own record.
There’s power in a name. Perhaps Marty Walker’s name, and his musical identity, has become too powerful to let him play second fiddle on his recordings. ‘Dancing On Water’ certainly showcases his talents, but in comparison to other Cold Blue albums – each firmly stamped with a composer’s identity – it feels like a picture of a man grown just a bit too big to comfortably wear other people’s handed-over suits in his own house.
Marty Walker: ‘Dancing On Water’
Cold Blue Music, CB0005 (800413000525)
Released: 5th June 2001
Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music