Essential New Music: Liudas Mockūnas / Arvydas Kazlauskas’ “PURVS”

The Baltic nations of Latvia and Lithuania are neighbors, but they aren’t a culturally matched set. While Lithuania hosts a robust and forward-leaning annual jazz festival (Vilnius), Latvia—despite hosting a world-class experimental music festival (Skaņu Mežs)—has virtually no avant-garde jazz scene at all. So, it makes sense that Arvydas Kazlauskas, a Latvian saxophonist with adventurous tendencies who’s worked mainly as an academic and orchestral musician, would end up playing with Lithuanian counterpart Liudas Mockūnas. Sooner or later, practitioners of the interactive arts need to relate with like minds. Since Mockūnas has toured and recorded with American and European—as well as Lithuanian—improvisers, but lives a thoroughly reasonable train ride away, he’s a natural candidate for Kazlauskas to test his improvisational mettle.

The double-LP PURVS is not just a Baltic improvisational summit; it’s probably the only saxophone duo ever recorded in a peat bog. The two musicians partnered with Jersika Records, an analog-oriented Latvian label, to make an adventure out of their first recording together. So, the two musicians spent two days in the middle of September 2020 wandering a peat bog near Jelgava, Latvia. First, they recorded on location, and then they capped the excursion with a concert performed at the bog’s open-air, in-the-round theater. In effect, this multiplied their challenge to include dealing not just with new playing partners, but with the exceptional demands of an acoustic setting consisting of sky and sound-absorbing vegetable matter. 

While this robbed the two men of any architectural assistance, it also makes it easier for listeners to perceive the music’s dynamics, if not which musician is playing the sounds. If you’re unfamiliar with the two players, you might imagine an encounter between Mats Gustafsson and Peter Brötzmann; while neither Mockūnas nor Kazlauskas is a copycat, both make ample use of sonic extremes obtained by playing a broad variety of saxophones. Between them, they bring everything from sopranino to bass saxes to this recording, and both men cover the range from ultra-quiet to full-blast volume.

One player (I’m guessing Kazlauskas) is more rhythmically fastidious and also prone to inserting blues licks into tight corners. The other (probably Mockūnas) is more prone to loosing stout, vibrato-laden waves that careen with blithe abandon through his partner’s figures. Some of their exchanges revel in the sheer force of lungs and reeds, but others feel more elemental, as though each man was drawing inspiration from the air over his head and the water soaked into the ground under his feet.

The first LP starts with the two musicians working horns at opposite ends of the spectrum, but by the end of the disc (subtitled The Bog Sessions), they’re engaging in dueling squalls with matched low-end horns. LP number two (subtitled Live At The Peat Amphitheater Solstice) feels like a more closely engaged contest. It starts with a battle of pointillistic jabs, then switches to a gentler exploration of contrasting timbres, then builds up to a tripartite construction in which one man punches out coarse riffs on two horns at once while the other wraps darting, caustic soprano lines around them.  

While it should be noted that you can hear this album on Bandcamp and see an excerpt from the concert on YouTube, vinyl partisans are going to want to check out the real thing. Beyond the LPs’ heft and the gatefold’s design, the pressings deliver a punch that belies the challenges inherent in recording horns out of doors.