from The Clarinet, June 2011


by Will Cicola

The San Francisco-based bass clarinet duo Sqwonk has been building an excellent reputation in the past few years, performing in a wide variety of venues across the country including the 2010 l.C.A. ClarinetFest@ in Austin. Texas. With their second album. Black. they have proven that this reputation is well-deserved. Jeff Anderle and Jon Russell make use of the full range of technical and expressive opportunities afforded by the bass clarinet. and the result pushes the envelope of what bass clarinet music can be. 

Given the lack of previously-existing material for bass clarinet duet. it is perhaps not surprising that Sqwonk has been actively commissioning compositions for their ensemble. Their first album, Sqwonk, consisted of a blend of self-produced arrangements, commissions, and compositions by members of the ensemble. This time around, the group has commissioned a full set of new music. The repertoire of Black is difficult to classify precisely. but it is perhaps best described as a combination of its members’ musical backgrounds-hints of jazz. rock, metal, minimalism and klezmer music are all present. The title track is reminiscent of the music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, while Strict9 is a dreamlike piece occasionally punctuated with walking bass lines and a jazz-like melody. Those who enjoy Anderle and Russell as members of the heavy-metal bass clarinet quartet Edmund Welles, will also appreciate Sojourn of the Face, as it was composed by Edmund Welles leader Cornelius Boots, and presents his style quite nicely. Every piece on the album exploits the unique properties of the bass clarinet to the fullest, with use of the instrument’s entire range and liberal but organic use of extended techniques. 

Of course. quality repertoire does not alone make an album. A top-notch performance is also required. and Black delivers in this area as well. Anderle and Russell‘s mastery of their instruments is evident in everything from the frantic and technical KNEE GAS (ON) to the mournful, lyrical lines of Sojourn of the Face. At times the ensemble is producing so many colors that it is easy to forget that there are only two performers, and at other times the blend is so effective that it is difficult to believe there could be more than one. The duo‘s repertoire consistently demands perfect production of complicated interwoven lines, acrobatic leaps, and sensitive lyricism in difficult registers: suffice it to say that Anderle and Russell rise to meet the challenge in every instance. 

This disc even makes use of audio engineering techniques to great effect. A number of tracks (most notably Black, KNEE GAS (ON), and Action Items) use panning to create a sense of spatial motion-an effect that the duo also produces in live performances. Listening to this album with headphones or a good set of stereo speakers is highly recommended! 

Black is an excellent product of a fast-rising star: those who enjoyed the first album will find even more to love in the second. It deserves a place in the collection of any bass clarinet enthusiast or fan of the styles from which Sqwonk draws influence.