Emergency String (X)tet

Rent Romus and Bob Marsh (sax, cello) perform Sunday, Jan. 9 at 7:30, at Musicians’ Union Hall (116 9th St., San Francisco).

The Emergency String (X)tet Meet Rent RomusEmergency Rental (Edgetone, 2010)

Off and on for 15+ years, cellist Bob Marsh has convened what used to be called the Emergency String Quartet, an improvising all-strings band. The results, although based in the same camp as sax-heavy “jazz improv,” come across like experimental classical music. The strings tend to converge into a nervous chatter, with some long bowed notes or sudden trills adding to the “classical” feel.

The transient nature of improv groups (and of impovisation itself) prompted Marsh to recently adopt the (X)tet name, which is not only flexible but pretty darned cool sounding. On Emergency Rental, we get a particularly dense version: three violins, two cellos, bass and bass koto, plus special guest Rent Romus on saxophone.

It would be easy for Romus to play the lead role over the needlepoint of the string sounds, but the group makes this choice only in spots.He grabs the reins for a jazzy vibe on “6th Street” (an ode to the Luggage Store Gallery), pulling the string ensemble into a busy, upbeat fluttering. He also tends towards a soloist’s role on “Something Wonderful,” where he’s a melodic tonic above the Morse code flutterings of the bowed and plucked strings.

But it’s a group effort, not a spotlight. Later, “Something Wonderful” sees the strings work their way into a sour-toned drone of rising tension, a voice Romus eventually joins — a nice example of how like-minded musicians can spontaneously create form. And frequently throughout the album, Romus drops into periods of quiet, short tones, blending into the underbrush.

There’s a patience and maturity to the group’s sound. Rarely do you hear all seven strings going at it at once; contributions are plotted and placed with care.

A good example is “Waiting by the Window,” which opens with some strong violin tones in a sparse setting, very classical. This develops into a creeping phase, with spare violin scratches and an occasional plucked bass note as grounding. Romus eventually breaks the spell like a small bubbling fountain, joined by tiny extended-technique sounds (creaks, clacks, scrapes).

Further reading: See the East Bay Express review of an earlier (X)tet album, Meridians, on the Italian label Setola di Maiale. Here’s a link to that CD’s page.

Photo by Michaelz1 on Flickr. It’s taken from a live show that might have been the source for Emergency Rental.