There is so much 21st century music to choose from ever since Jimmy Blanton brought the contrabass out of the woods in an early incarnation of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, it is refreshing when a disc turns up that harks back to the days when that instrument was played with a purity that can only come from gut strings. Hecate’s Hounds by the duo called Dogwood is special for a few other reasons musical rather than technical reasons too. However, it pays to emphasise the fact that one is not likely to hear a recording that spotlights the contrabass quite like this one does. Not many contrabass players favour gut strings and one of the most important reasons for this is not really sophistication of steel and spirocore strings (as bassists would have one believe), but rather the fact that it is much harder to keep an instrument in tune with the older, gut strings.
Purists like Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden, Jimmy Garrison and Scott LaFaro kept the “gut-thing” going far longer than other contrabassists. While Mr. LaFaro’s life was cut short far too early, of the others only Mr. Haden stubbornly refused to ever make the switch until the he too was parted with his beloved bass. Now, however, in Zach Swanson, we have an old-fashioned contrabass player who is just as stubborn as Mr. Haden was and his obstinacy has certainly paid off. Much of what has been achieved on Hecate’s Hounds has to do with the twice purified echo of the sound of his contrabass – once as it’s sculpted sound comes off these strings and again when it bursts forth from the woody cavern of the body of the instrument, caressing every nook and cranny inside and hugging the dark varnish before leaping into the atmosphere of the room where (your) speakers are placed.
The other – equally important – aspects of this marvelous recording are, of course entirely music, of course. It begins with the fluid relationship between the guitarist, Nico Soffiato and Mr. Swanson (Dogwood) as well as in the (equally) fluid relationship between written material and improvisation. To begin with the duo operates as a partnership of equals and not as contrabassist and accompaniment or vice-versa. Likewise, the guitar is integrated into the contrabass in the same spirit, with both musicians exploiting his instrument to its fullest extent. Their use of the nakedness of acoustics – as pure as one can get with the use of the (extraneous) pickups and amplifiers, and microphones that is – and this is what draws attention to the material. There is also the small matter of what appears to be the sound of a hollow-body electric guitar combined with an (acoustic) contrabass, which has its privileges.
And then there is the music itself. Both Mr. Swanson and Mr. Soffiato are splendid musicians. Also, not for them are relentless torrents of notes, honking riffs and biting attack. Their trademark is “round sound”, lithe and elegant as well as warm and gently swinging. Tis high-sprung musicianship is heard all over the recording – in dancing melodies (“It Must Have Been the Wind”), insistent rhythms (“Mistake/Headache”) and satisfying harmonies (“Expanding Blue”), with the element of unusual textures via the acoustic/electric combination (everywhere especially “Lonely Proposition”). Magic fingers and agile intellects are heard in this music throughout and if Mr. Swanson produces some tasty arco work and agile pizzicato, Mr. Soffiato gives back in kind with both fingers and plectrums. All this plus a warm acoustic from an engineer, Michael Perez-Cisneros, who saw the big picture and and captured the smallest details, and a courageous boutique label that put this recording out. The result is the sound of music to die for…
Track list – 1: Causes; 2: It Must Have been the Wind; 3: Mistake/Headache; 4: Aokigahara; 5: Crevasse; 6: Bassifondi; 7: Gumtree Canoe; 8: What Conclusions Am I Left to Draw; 9: Expanding Blue; 10: Lonely Proposition
Personnel – Nico Soffiato: guitar; Zach Swanson: contrabass
Released – 2018
Label – Nusica
Runtime – 39:57