In addition to running the well regarded Foley Street improv club, Daniel Thompson is carving a promising career as an improvising guitarist, honing his chops with duties in various ensembles, often with slightly leftfield configurations. He provides six string support to violin-clarinet-guitar trio with Benedict Taylor and Tom Jackson, and appears in a drone-noise-improv trio with Richard Sanderson and Mark Browne, his guitar adding metallic swipes and slices to Sanderson’s melodeon and Browne’s sax and objects madness.
Mill Hill, a hookup with saxophonist Adrian Northover, sees him in slightly more orthodox free improv territory, but it’s still a lot of fun. Northover is the veteran of the two, with a wide and varied discography to match, including a rather nice duo recording with Tasos Stamou last year. He’s got all the moves down pat, the circular breathing and the extended techniques, but he’s happy to combine these with a jazzier, more melodic style, which, when combined with the brassy warmth of his tone, gives his playing a unique and individual character.
Both players are on irreverent form here, trading licks and scrapes in a good natured jostle and bustle. Perhaps that’s why the session feels slightly more mellow than many other free improv sets, which is an interesting place to be. All the tracks on Mill Hill refer to ‘various types of mill or milling processes’, according to the blurb on the release’s bandcamp page. A nice concept, although what it’s got to do with the music I have no idea. Still, it makes a change from ‘Untitled improvisation’, I guess.
I’m partial to the cheeky tweets and plucks of Arrastra (‘A mill dating back some three thousand years used for grinding gold and silver ore’) where Northover skids around the higher register as Thompson picks staccato clusters of notes from his guitar. It’s like watching a mouse creep along a high window ledge as a starling flutters around it, pissed off that it’s too big to eat. Things change in the second half, Northover’s sax casting lugubrious wafts as Thompson’s guitar confines itself to exhausted plunks.
Grist (y’know – Grist to the mill) is a busier affair, Thompson tangling himself up in rippling, brambly outbursts. Northover pokes the hornets’ nest a couple of times before letting fly with brassy streams of circular breathing, like some kind of steampunk laser, all brass and clockwork parts but capable of taking down an airship.
Although initial listens seem to suggest Thompson relinquishing the lead role in many of these improvisations – if only due to his instrument’s relative lack of attack in comparison to the saxophone, so adept at cutting through a bed of chords or textures – the reality is more complex. His scurrying, scuffling playing is capable of creating a range of effects, adding dynamic fluctuation or puncturing Northover’s more ethereal flights. Towards the end of Grist, his scrubbing and scratching seems to act as a kind of granite wall, weathered but impermeable, against which Northover’s increasingly desperate curlicues flounder.
Finally, in Buhrstone (‘a fine grinding mill utilising cellular quartz in the pulverising process’) the duo seems to come to an amicable settlement, with Thompson’s increasingly melodic picks a nicely balanced counterpoint to Northover’s reedy wanderings. Like swallows they swoop and flutter and, then, after a final percussive flurry, they’re gone, zooming off through the clouds in search of warmer climes.