Ripsaw Catfish is a duo of Cath Roberts (baritone sax) and Anton Hunter (guitar). This is their second outing for Colin Webster’s Raw Tonk label, following 2014’s excellent For the Benefit Of The Tape, a studio date that captured the duo’s brassy lyricism perfectly. Namazu presents three live sets from 2016, with the intimacy of that debut replaced by an immediacy and fluency that is just great, basically. Roberts is a well-known figure on London’s improvised music scene, thanks to her co-curation, with Dee Byrne, of the excellent LUME series and her work with a gaggle of ensembles and groupings, notably Sloth Racket (last year’s Triptych is a recommended point of departure), Word of Moth and the mighty Saxoctopus which, as the name suggests, is an octet comprising entirely of horn players. Although many of Roberts’ groups tend towards composed material, much of it created by Roberts and often deploying graphic or text-based scores as well as more conventional notation, Ripsaw Catfish is where Roberts gets to explore her improvisatory side. Hunter, as well as playing with Roberts here and in Sloth Racket, keeps himself busy, too running his own trio (with Johnny Hunter and James Adolpho), the Article XI large ensemble, the Beats & Pieces band as well as lots of other good stuff.
Unsurprisingly, given their depth of expertise and range of experience, the thing I like about Ripsaw Catfish is their approach to innovation. They start from the inside, adopting the familiar grammar of free improvisation and then rebuilding it from the inside out until it becomes entirely unfamiliar. The tongue slaps and guitar splinters at the start of Stone, for example, soon morph into lugubrious sax licks and guitar twangs, Roberts poking and prodding the air in search of fresh melodic directions as Hunter first chops out some skinny open chords and then grinds a bass string drone that tethers Roberts’ gasping blurts in a strange airy dance. It’s a clever strategy, avoiding the need to confront the turbulent histories of their instruments and relieving any pressure for radical novelty, replacing rupture with evolution.
Indeed, some of Namazu’s most rewarding moments come when Hunter holds it down totally, casting out monotone fugue states through which Roberts wanders like some video game character lost in a labyrinth. There are two of these dreamy sequences on Thrash, the first coming about three minutes in. Hunter plucks a disorientating, two-string, single-note drone, that gives Robert’s lively squeals and hoots a distinctively woozy character. It cuts out after a minute in favour of tinny, top of the neck plinks, leaving Roberts to push on. Barely five minutes later it happens again, but this time Hunter carefully scrubs a shimmering, static chord that acts a hushed bed for some beautifully soulful and exploratory playing from Roberts, channelling the ghosts of spiritual jazz sessions past for a prayer-like interlude.
But the real bounty comes with Mud. Recorded, like album opener Stone, at Café Oto in October 2016, this set shows the duo shrugging of any remaining shackles and heading out into uncharted space. Things get weird almost immediately, Hunter’s picked notes starting to cluster around Roberts’ jaunty, dissonant licks like iron filings around a magnet. Roberts’ playing is good and gutsy here but Hunter’s maximalist swarm gives things a cyborg, almost overwhelming character. But that’s just the beginning. Roberts starts to play slower, pulling the guitar into a reedy tractor beam that reduces it to low-end throb. The transition from busy adventurousness to surly melancholia has been effortless. A later section, in which Hunter stalks in with echoey, post-rock riffing that’s matched by more deep vibes from Roberts only adds to this track’s restless charm. Ice cold, baby.