Top Floor Encounter
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Is TOP FLOOR ENCOUNTER part of the revenge of Generation Y musicians?

For the past 15 years or so, Gen X jazzers — the so-called Young Lions — have dominated the musical agenda, limiting improvisation to that involving swing, tonality and conventional interaction. But now, as many of the Young Lions are revealed to be little more than toothless tigers, even younger players are throwing those conventions aside and discovering how such techniques as speech-like inflection and dissonance, first utilized by neo-con mocked avant gardists gives them additional freedom.

The two American and one German musician featured here, who are all on either side of 30, demonstrate how well this rediscovered musical independence can be used.

Link between sensibilities, is American bassist John Hughes, 29. While going to university in Baltimore he was part of an shifting group of experimental improvisers, which included drummer Jeff Arnal, 30. Arnal, who studied composition at the University of Baltimore also played with Vattel Cherry, a former Charles Gayle sideman, with whom Hughes studied bass. Moving to Hamburg in 1999, he began an association with local alto saxophonist Lars Scherzberg, 29. When Arnal visited Germany in the summer of 2000 the three got together to record this skillful CD.

Existing in a common improv zone, where they're certainly not a group, but no longer strangers, the three range through a mixed program rooted firmly in what could be called the EuroImprov tradition.

Although working in the time-honored horn and rhythm section trio preferred by committed jazz saxophonists as different as Ornette Coleman and Branford Marsalis, this is no soloist-plus-back-up date. While parallels could be made with the trios put together by improvisers like Briton Evan Parker, the three certainly haven't reached the level of extrasensory perception that sometimes characterize the interaction in those bands.

Instead what you see is what you get: three young musicians working together to achieve a certain congruence and mutual solving of different theoretical challenges. Although the sleeve lists nine selections, you could just as easily see the entire disc as one subdivided suite. Flowing one tune into another, only interrupted near the end for some scattered applause from the small audience, this is music of diminutive hand movements and quick responses.

Scherzberg, a saxophone student of King Übü mainman Wolgang Fuchs, plays in a style that implies sounds as much as expels them. A compendium of extended techniques, his favorites seem to be rolling flutter tonguing, false fingering and protracted pain-flecked shrieks. Near the end he does try some honking as well as circular breathing, but that's also the only time anything resembling a regular plucked bass pulse appears.

Reticent most of the time, Hughes usually confines himself to lightening quick arco attacks, quick bass guitar-like strums or bass stave accents. While Arnal, favoring brushes, mostly confines himself to the lightest parts of his kit, sometime introducing the odd bell-like cymbal tone.

Having set out their parameters, the three still reveal themselves Gen Yers on most pieces and the CD itself really lack a definitive ending. But, then again, who beside the neo-cons ever assumed that a young musician's definitive statement was made first time out? Extraordinary improvisation comes from many years of familiarity with your own instrument and your thoughts about music making.

This encounter is a fine record of a stop along that road. As the promise exhibited here is realized, the three may arrive at a place that's even higher than the top floor. To get the disc, contact

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Magnetic Resonance 2. The Perch 3. Montagne de plaisanterie No. 1 4. Montagne de plaisanterie No. 2 5. Pulse Deviations 6. Union 7. Check 8. Plus 9. Quickie

Personnel: Lars Scherzberg (alto saxophone); John Hughes (bass); Jeff Arnal (percussion)