self released, 2010, DD album, £name your price
When instrumentalists release recordings, it’s not unusual for them to do so under a cover from which they stare directly, and intensely, at the listener. Jaco Pastorius’ eponymous debut is an iconic example, recently revisited by Jasper Høiby for the Phronesis album ‘Alive’. It says ‘listen, I am addressing an important statement to you’. Russ Sargeant stares from the cover art of ‘Solitude’, obliquely away from the viewer, refusing their gaze, his half smile suggesting some private, inward amusement, a hunted look in his shadowed eyes. This says something different: ‘I am engaged in a dialogue, and you are invited to eavesdrop’.
This is not to say that his music is uncommunicative; but it is contemplative. It seems to represent a process rather than a conclusion. This is born out in fact by the statement (on the album’s Bandcamp page) of his intent to ‘release tracks two or three at a time and build this album as I do so’. There is no indication as to whether he’s finished.
To say Sargeant creates soundscapes would be to gloss over one of his greatest strengths, as a melodist, but his recordings largely consist of spatial, layered pads, and melodies played on electric or upright bass. Sometimes the pads sound very like synthesizers (as on Dream The Brightest Dawn), but with some effects and an Ebow, anything is possible: what’s certain is that these tracks are performed as they sound here, using live looping technology. If you see Sargeant live he will realise these compositions for you with one or more basses and some gizmos.
The album opens with a beautifully warm and atmospheric landscape of heavily processed fretless bass delays, that builds slowly in layers, evoking for me the melancholy cityscapes (and soundtrack) of Blade Runner. After nearly three minutes the smooth and calming consonance is ruptured by a distorted voice, that cuts across the harmony as well as the texture; but even this fizzing distortion is cushioned and absorbed in Sargeant’s sound world.
There is a sense of distance, even anaesthesia, throughout this album: even the beautiful double bass melody he dedicates to Eberhard Weber is recorded very wet, and sounds very detached, for all that it is also expressive and heartfelt. Sargeant is fond of technological solutions that generate organic, nuanced sounds, such as the fretless bass, and the Ebow. His music is very pleasant to listen to, very visual and evocative, and seems very welcoming; but it remains enigmatic, and refuses to let you pin it down. We will never know exactly what Sargeant is thinking, because he does not seem to state it explicitly: it is as though we can hear one half of a phone call, a beautiful and moving series of utterances, but one that is not directed at us.
This refusal, to me, is the core of this music’s beauty. It is a refusal, as he refuses the viewer’s gaze in the artwork, to enter into the usual contract between musician and listener, and it is a refusal that is crucial to Sargeant’s creative integrity, bearing in mind that it is easy to read music of this sort in a simplistic way, as being simply ‘pretty’. A familiar musical vocabulary is deployed, according to a recognisable structure, but the listener is challenged to hear past the stock response, which is to hear musical meaning as a straightforward expression of a simple, singular emotional experience. The soundworld Sargeant opens up to us is a colder, lonelier place than we might initially guess from his textures and harmonies, but it is also a more complex and rewarding place to inhabit.