Barre Phillips ‘End to End’ LP/CD (ECM) 4/5

A close friend of Manfred Eicher and a highly creative musician whose sphere of influence cuts across western classical, improvisational and jazz boundaries, double bassist Barre Phillips seldom records and is little known to a younger generation, but has nonetheless attracted a coterie of admirers along the way. First discovered performing at a parish church in London, but developing a close friendship with Manfred Eicher after the latter heard Phillips at Berlin club in the 1960s, Barre Phillips is a musician who has tended to avoid the limelight, yet is still highly respected among musicians.

He is in fact reputed to be the first musician to record a bass solo album as far back as 1968, ‘Journal Violone’, on his own MS label, but followed that up with his first offering on ECM, a collaborative double bass duet recording with Dave Holland, ‘Music For Two Basses’ (ECM 1971), and at a later date, a second bass solo effort, ‘Call Me When You Get There’, (ECM 1983). This new recording dates from 2017 at La Buissonne and retains an intimate and reposing feel throughout. For those unfamiliar with his work, Phillips’ musical influences are diverse, but were particularly informed by avant-garde jazzmen such as Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp and even Johnny Griffin on the hard-bop side, third stream composers like Gunther Schuller, as well as classical tenures as soloist bassist with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. In concert, Barre Phillips has performed with Paul Bley, Chick Corea, Don Ellis and George Russell, while in London he worked with Chris McGregor and other South African exiles. As part of a trio formed, Phillips has recorded with Stu Martin and John Surman.

The album is divided up into a series of three lengthy pieces, and, from a purely technical perspective, is fascinating to hear in that the high-pitched harmonies contrast markedly with the lower registers, and part of the skill that Phillips possesses is to make that transition appear seamless. Although the material is prepared, Barre Phillips manages to dissect the contents with a distinctive improvised feel and explore them within the setting of a studio, thus offering more of a live mood to proceedings. Some of the parts have an early music feel and there is a strong influence of J.S Bach, while both Corelli and Villa-Lobos are present in his compositions. On part two of, ‘Quest’, for example, the spirit of Bach permeates the music and that is even more pronounced on part five where Bach’s cello suite immediately springs to mind, but not in any derivative sense. With both the extensive and exemplary sleeve notes for this album, ECM is threatening to shed its usual minimalist reputation. However, in the case of Barre Phillips, that is no bad thing at all.

Tim Stenhouse