Simon Little – Mandala (ambient/ solo bass/ jazz)

self released, 2010, CD album, 55m 2s

£10 (also available as DD, £5)

One of the tracks on this album is titled ‘Ohm Is Where The Art Is’: it’s awfully tempting to run with that, and build a critical edifice around the idea of ‘ohm’ signifying a metaphorical sense of impedance or resistance, but to be honest, I’m pretty sure Simon Little’s artistic strategy is more straightforward than that. He doesn’t ask us to swallow anything that’s difficult to digest, or set out to challenge our ideas about music, but that’s not to say that his music isn’t experimental or progressive: it’s both.

Little builds up his grooves and soundscapes by layering loops of sounds he makes with his bass guitar: he plays a little phrase, sets it to repeat, and then plays something else on top of it, ultimately building up to full and complex orchestrations. That doesn’t mean it sounds like a lot of bass guitar: there are fully muted percussive sounds, EBowed and plucked harmonics, upper register improvisations, chords and double stops, and a sophisticated palette of audio processing, adding up to a varied set of orchestrated textures across a wide range of frequencies. All the tracks on the album have more or less the same homophonic texture, in which Little establishes an accompaniment and then improvises on it, usually tearing up the dusty end of his instrument to exhilarating effect.

Eberhard Weber’s live looping album Pendulum is cited as an influence on this work, and it is an audible one; but this is far from being an imitation, and Little’s sense of melody doesn’t bear much resemblance to Weber’s. At slow to medium tempos the clearest influence in his lyrically expressive phrasing is Stanley Clarke, who can also be heard in the sharp, prominent attack of much of his upper register tone. Little doesn’t seem to use the upper register to play lyrically; the middle register of the bass, like the cello, is particularly pleasing for such purposes, and it is exploited well on this album, but when he moves into the higher frequencies, for the most part his notes become more frequent as well.

There are some rapid fire technical pyrotechnics to be heard here. Little doesn’t play like a jazzer when he plays fast, but more like a blues rocker, although he doesn’t restrict himself to pentatonic materials. He basically grabs a selection of notes and wails on them, also developing a much wider and faster vibrato, which gives his sound a slightly helium fueled cast.

His melodic materials are largely scalar, and eschew arpeggios, with a preponderance of minor modes. It’s an unavoidable limitation of live looping that it lends itself more to a modal approach, and virtually rules out extended phrasing in the harmonic rhythm, but Little makes a virtue of a necessity, and against its peaceful, spacious setting his rapid execution trills and chirrups like birdsong.

We hear a variety of responses to the harmonic restrictions of the context: on ‘Light And Shade’ he develops a melody using tenths, which sounds like a chord sequence in its own right, albeit a modal or diatonic one, and his subsequent, more free flowing improvisation superimposes some harmonic movements over a looped ground bass. More usually though, he plays what sounds like a modal melody with some chromaticism for colour.

Although everything on this album is ear pleasing, and presents itself to the listener in an accessible manner, its far from being ‘smooth’. You can hear Little probing at the contours of his chosen musical landscape, exploring the possibilities and mapping the territory: I’d go so far as to say this album sounds like first steps, but these are first steps on an interesting journey, from a player with a great deal of musicality and technique, so they sound anything but unfinished, or incompletely realised. They sound, like all good music, as though they have somewhere to go: music that sounds completely finished is usually in a creative dead end, in my view, but this leaves me, for all its own undeniable merits, wanting to hear where its author goes next.

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