John Russell, Ståle Liavik Solberg – No StepFebruary 10, 2014
Some evenings I don’t want to have to think too hard about music. I don’t want to have to strain my ears, or figure out hidden references to other work or spans too long trying to work out what I am hearing in the first place. All of these activities are things I love to do, but sometimes, on certain evenings when I’ve had a tough day and just want to enjoy something elementally simple then CDs like this one do the trick. This isn’t meant as a criticism of this new album by John Russell (acoustic guitar) and Ståle Liavik Solberg (drums, percussion). The music on No Step is wonderful in its own way, but its beauty is a visceral, physical beauty. You just press play and follow the exchange between two musicians just playing instruments. Sometimes that’s enough.
Solberg is a Norwegian musician who plays with character and confidence but clearly is a strong listener. His playing is expressive rather than powerful, living and breathing rather than rhythmically forceful. There is plenty of variety to his approach, which leans towards the skittering and punchy rather than the metallic or bowed, but his percussion steers clear of the obviously jazzy. John Russell has always been a supremely sensitive listener, but if his playing has not made any giant stylistic leaps down the years his attentiveness, his ability to focus on both his own output and that of his collaborator simultaneously clearly has. The pair are fantastically in tune with each other throughout the single thirty-three minute set that forms No Step. Following the music as it throws shapes in the air, rising and falling through bursts of increased activity is a joyful experience. I am reminded of Playing, the classic recording by John Stevens and Derek Bailey in the way the music moves quickly at times, builds in density here and there and yet always seems to have fresh air breezing through it, the streams of the two musician’s contributions twisting and winding their way around one another caught in the flow. This is exceptionally happy, pleasing music. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to let its playfulness and weaving intricacies gather you in. There is of course nothing stylistically “new” here- no conscious pushing at the boundaries of improvised music, nothing more than two musicians playing their instruments well and listening to one another intently, but you know, on some evenings, that in itself is just perfect, and when such an approach is executed with the grace and exuberance of No Step then that is certainly enough.