Review: Manuel Mota + Jason Kahn - Espírito Santo

Espírito Santo is one of those albums in which the location of the recording is as integral as the actions of the performers. Both of these pieces were recorded in the cellar of the “Espírito Santo” building in Lisbon – a space that not only announces its presence as a ghostly reverb trail that lingers behind each splutter of guitar distortion and each meandering synthesiser tone, but one that contributes an intermittent, violent rattle throughout, as the adjacent subway line sends vibrations juddering through the recording space as each train passes. The location is more than significant; it’s an active musical collaborator.

Much of this collaboration occurs on the cusp of actual melody and deliberate implements of harmony, as though capturing a tentative period of first acquaintance between player and instrument, player and player, instrument and instrument. Notes escape in short flurries before being abruptly reeled back in, as though failing to recall sentences that have already been spoken, while feedback arrives as an agitated buzz that always feels ready to give way to the strum of notes on strings. Yet at the same time, both players feel very much immersed. Dynamics are often precise and delicately handled, while care is taken to keep the improvisation on the verge of melodic clarity without ever actually getting there.

The closer the pieces are to silence, the more captivating Espírito Santo tends to be. It is during the album’s quietest stretches that the cold, cavernous echo resonates most eerily, and it is here that the most delicate details of how each player handles their instrument can be most intensely observed. The production is notably muffled and lo-fi, and although this gifts warmth to the piece’s softer movements, its louder stretches turn into an unattractive blur of sound. Many of those intricate brushstrokes of improvisatory expression become lost in a murky cloud of noise as a result. Unfortunately this occurs much more frequently than this reviewer would desire, but if any plus can be derived from this, it’s that those dips back into quiet feel all the more illuminative in contrast.