Paul G Smyth and Chris Corsano’s ‘engaging double-team attack on the senses’ leaves an impression on MacDara Conroy
Four shows into his six-gig series of improvised duo performances at the National Concert Hall’s Kevin Barry Room, and Paul G Smyth, mopping the sweat from his brow after an exhilarating hour in the thick of it with Chris Corsano, gives the impression of someone who can’t believe his luck. It’s endearing actually, the incredulous way he describes hatching the idea on a whim with Note Productions last year to now, the last day of April in 2015, having played once a month with four of the most respected names in adventurous music.
It started in January with German free jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, ripping at his reeds in his inimitable fashion while Smyth, an experienced free-improvising pianist and composer when he’s not messing about with The Jimmy Cake, attacked his keys and strings with even greater ferocity. Together they fomented as atonal a racket as you might expect but one given shape by way of Brötzmann’s naturally rhythmic skronk.
Having missed his subsequent shows with noise virtuoso John Wiese and improv sax blower Evan Parker, it’s impossible to tell whether the series has had any cumulative impact on Smyth’s own playing and approach. Who knows how it’ll play into his upcoming duets with cellist Okkyung Lee and double bass player John Edwards. But what is obvious here, this night, is that he and avant percussionist Corsano – a serial collaborator across the spectrum from Bill Orcutt to Björk, and with whom Smyth has played before – have an instant rapport.
Limbs as wiry as his piano strings, Smyth leans into the gaping maw of his instrument while Corsano, an unassuming figure resembling the bald record store clerk in High Fidelity, prepares his snares with what look like Gamelan gongs before freewheeling around the minimal kit in a controlled frenzy. Unconventional is the word: as much as he smacks the drumheads with his sticks in the usual manner, he also stabs at them with the butts, rattles the rims, rings and mutes the cymbals, reflecting Smyth’s own particular intimacy with the piano, hands flailing wildly at the keyboard, fingers arched like talons swooping on prey, stabbing and digging into the flesh of the matter.
The next numbers bring out wooden blocks, and a bow that Corsano drags against a snare rim, determined to wring as unorthodox a sound from his kit as possible. He even flubs a high-tempo flurry response to Smyth’s own piano assault when a stick flies loose from his grasp but no matter, it’s all part of the act. Later, during a quieter piano-led exploration, he’ll whip out some pads to slap on the skins that look like flatbreads, and I half expect him to spill a few other food items on the kit, some breadsticks maybe, or a block of cheese, and it would feel like they had some purpose beyond the absurdity of the situation.
Perhaps the most dissonant moment comes somewhere in the second half of their hour-plus performance, as the room starts to warm up – from the heating, or just the bodies in the space – and the sweat really starts to fly, but during a locked-in mutual rhythmic exchange with a distinct jazzy swing, free and fiery in any other context yet at odds with the non-Euclidean music that surrounds it here; sounds with a structure, a geometry alien to the stuff that normally graces this building’s main hall. But that contrast itself is in keeping with the overall theme of Smyth and Corsano’s consistently engaging double-team attack on the senses.