From London and Oslo respectively, guitarist John Russell and drummer Stale Liavik Solberg have been working as a duo since 2012. That «No Step» was recorded in May 2013 is a clear indicator that the two musicians have an organic synchronicity, as the pair never wrong-step once in this 33 minute performance. Normally, for playing of this kind to possess such confidence and symmetry, I would expect to find a long association, whether punctuated by various other projects or not.
Russell is clearly a player who can insert himself seamlessly into many environments, whether small (notably having played in duos with Martine Altenburger and Stefan Keune), or larger scale (QUAQUA). Coming from the same school of guitar technique and attitude as Derek Bailey, Russell’s playing is never anything but impeccable, with nary a note, scratch, rasp or rattle ill-timed or sounding remotely accidental. He can move through frenetic, chaotic passages with the self-assurance of a man who knows every inch of his instrument, every harmonic overtone, every percussive grind or squeal. He can settle into little lyrical passages with grace, build and demolish a moment with ease.
In Solberg, Russell has found a collaborator with equal taste and capability. Like Paal Nilsen-Love, Solberg play drums as an instrument rather than a mere metronome capable of filling end-bars with signposts between verses and choruses and middle eights. He explores the sonic possibilities of his kit, rubbing the cymbals here, scarping the skins there, detuning them, rattling them there, dragging the sticks where sticks rarely make contact. Their interplay is inspiring, and a perfect example of how free improvisation should be executed: nothing overstays its welcome, but nothing – once it has arrived – is left in any way unexplored. Each new idea that emerges is given full treatment until it is exhausted, and then a new idea quickly takes its place.
Moments form with elements of funk, suggestions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s «Flight of the Bumble Bee», vague echoes of some flamenco afterlife, and the full gamut of free improvisational tropes that work.
Neither musician is focussing on producing a «sound» in the sense that they are forcing their instrument to mimic something else: both are satisfied with the fact that they play guitar that sounds like a guitar, and drums that sound like drums. The result is a pure, unadorned music that is thoroughly genuine, by turns intense and contemplative, and utterly musical in the best possible sense. Very often with free improvisation you hear hesitation, a moment or two of «where the hell am I?» or «What is he doing now?» No such moments appear here. «No Step» is a master class in the art of free improvisation, infused with honesty, integrity and supreme listenability.