I first encountered Ryoko Ono as part of the pugilistic Sax Ruins duo at the Tusk festival in Gateshead last year. There, her razor-edged horn phrases tessellated into drummer Tatsuya Yoshida percussive flurries to create raw and intricate patterns that seemed at once too complex to be wholly improvised yet too fast moving and instinctive to reflect any compositional structure. If this duo with Dutch drummer Rogier Smal isn’t quite so intense, it still exudes plenty of aggressive energy for eager listeners to feed off, Smal’s swaggering beats opening up plenty of space for Ono’s blistering horn lines to blast on through.
Ono is, as you’d expect, in blistering form throughout, the diamond shards of her Sax Ruins playing allowed to stretch out into deep and wide calls. There’s no empty bluster here, though. For every overwhelming volcanic torrent – check out track 5’s sandpapery waves, for example (none of the tracls have titles, by the way) – there’s a shower of glorious sparks, as in track 7’s wriggling, high squeaks. The penultimate tune is even better, Smal setting things up with a kinetic run of brushes on snare before Ono joins for an extended circular breathing workout, the duo’s onward momentum like some intrepid pair of adventurers locked together as they plummet over a waterfall.
I’ve heard Smal in a few free improv configurations before now, in a pairing with Manchester based guitarist David Birchall as well as a trio with Birchall and saxophonist Cath Heyden, but this is the loosest and jazziest I’ve heard him play to date. Occasionally he launches into a polyrhythmic lurch that’s reminiscent of Steve Noble, as on the opening cut, where he rolls around his kit in a liquid rush, Ono firing out correspondingly sinuous phrases that are downright melodic at times. Elsewhere he dials down the grandstanding – on track 6, he confines himself to languorous tom thuds and cymbal crashes as Ono gives vent to a series of full-lunged, almost Brotzmannesque sax rasps.
With nine relatively short pieces Woodmoon never outstays its welcome, pitching the duo’s deep engagement with one another against just enough stylistic variety to keep us listening, and the odd quirk – the spoken word section in Track 4 and the bubbling gloop and screech of the final piece – to widen the palette enough more. What’s interesting is how the boisterousness of Smal and Ono’s playing never quite tips over into open warfare. Instead they engage in an sonic version of the old paper-rock-scissors game, with the lack of an overall victor resulting not so much in stalemate as eternal cosmic balance.