There are philosophic and physical depths to consider when dealing with sound and language in music. There are the timbral dimensions of instruments, the unique touch and voice of the performer, and the dialogue between two or more musicians created during performance. Guitarist/composer Brandon Ross and bassist Stomu Takeishi’s duo - For Living Lovers - has invested time and energy in developing its own system to generate natural sound environments and communication, finally documented on their new recording Revealing Essence.
Brandon Ross has long established himself as a leading light in the world of guitar. He figured as an important element in projects led by Cassandra Wilson, Leroy Jenkins, Lawrence “Butch” Morris, and Henry Threadgill. Ross has also led his own projects and the collaborative ensemble, Harriet Tubman, featuring bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer JT Lewis.
It was during the process of creating a new ensemble for the iconoclastic composer/woodwind player Henry Threadgill that Ross met the Japanese born bassist Stomu Takeishi. After returning from a trip to India with Threadgill in the mid-1990s, Ross heard Takeishi in a performance in an all string ensemble with cellist Michelle Kinney and violist Jason Hwang. The bassist’s musical choices struck Ross and he introduced himself.
Takeishi was already performing with a diverse cast of musical polyglots, including Dave Tronzo, trumpeter Cuong Vu, and with Paul Motian’s Electric BeBop Band. Though he was unfamiliar with Threadgill, Ross invited Takeishi to audition for what would become Threadgill’s Make a Move ensemble, which also featured drummer JT Lewis and accordionist Tony Cedras.
It was during the four to five years they spent together learning Threadgill’s singular musical language that the duo realized they had highly sympathetic musical sensibilities. In 2000, Ross and Takeishi debuted as a duo, now called For Living Lovers.
Incredibly, it was Ross’s visual arts connections that were key in making Revealing Essence possible. Photographer (and guitar aficionado) Ralph Gibson, a guitar student and champion of Ross’s music, proposed a series of collaborations of photography and music they might undertake. He provided the wonderful images and portrait of Ross and Takeishi in the album art. During a chance discussion of music, art, and life at a gallery opening, the celebrated painter Eric Fischl offered Ross his services as executive producer for a new recording, thus catalyzing the beginning of the project that would become Revealing Essence.
Revealing Essence provides a glimpse into the duo’s special rapport. Their particular language evolved, in part, out of Threadgill’s intervallic approach to improvisation and composition, a complex chromatic system that while behaviorally strict, sounds deceptively open and natural. Their style coalesced into a kind of “pan-ethnic” quality, a genre-less blend of chordophonic “folk” elements with a focus on improvisation. Beyond being naturally attuned to each other’s musical approach, both Ross and Takeishi play instruments designed and crafted by the same master luthier, Steve Klein.
The duo’s choice to record all acoustic stringed instruments illustrates perfectly their focus on a resonant, natural collective sound. The compositions are written or arranged for the specific acoustic ranges of Ross’s instruments. Depending on the sonic or compositional weight, Ross balances between acoustic guitar, soprano guitar, and banjo alongside Takeishi’s acoustic bass guitar. The album, in this case, winds up being a collection of slow, reflective pieces.
The recording begins with Ross’s “Chant,” a pensive, spare composition featuring interplay between Ross’s acoustic guitar and Takeishi’s acoustic bass guitar. The obscure Ornette Coleman composition “Night Plans” follows with Ross’s soprano guitar taking a lyre-inspired lead on the evocative piece. “Iago Whispered” is a speculative reverie, a sound poem written as Othello’s nostalgic recollection of an un-described home. Erik Satie’s “Danses De Travers I & II” receive unique, even-toned arrangements by the duo; the composer’s solo piano music was a fascination of Ross’s for an extended period of time.
Ross’s “Lotus Blossom” is a narrative composition, featuring banjo inflections that suggest Asian or African instruments and a melody that recurs along a kaleidoscopic harmonic underpinning. The title and melodic material are taken from elements of a score Ross was commissioned to compose for a 1923 Chinese silent film of the same name. Beginning as a spontaneous improvisation, “Meadows” was expanded and developed into a full piece. “Saturation” is based on a single melodic line, which repeats through three different harmonic settings/sections. Lastly, “Thanks (For J-R)” is written for a Mystical Traveler and begins at the end of the beginning and is deconstructed through the form, which never fully resolves.
The duo For Living Lovers was established by two musicians who found commonalities in style, practice, and musical language. Brandon Ross and Stomu Takeishi have now recorded Revealing Essence, an album showcasing their almost telepathic abilities of interaction through music.