January 15, 2001
The Swiss Duos
Unit UTR 4128
Recitals involving a French horn and a piano may bring forth images of self-conscious chamber musicians working their way through the baroque canon or Lieder ohne Worte, but when the duo involves Tom Varner and a quartet of Switzerland's most distinctive keyboardists, the results are decidedly different.
Sliding smoothly between so-called classical music, improv and jazz, American Varner has shown his mettle in variety of settings over the past few years. This low-key, but impressive disc casts his talents in even bolder relief with only piano along to fill out the tunes. With two dozen on tap, ranging in length from 46 seconds to over seven minutes, the hornist mixes and matches styles to ensure we don't lose interest.
A frequent visitor to Switzerland since the early 1980s, Varner isolates the talents of each duo partner to play up their strengths. George Gruntz introduces a bluesy subset to his tunes, which include Charlie Parker's "Quasimodo", Varner's descriptive "Big George's Blues", and George Gershwin's "Summertime", which the pianist shores up with some quasi boogie- figures.
Feigenwinter's contributions range from cerebral abstraction to elegant swing. He's versatile enough to follow a straightforward reading of Hans Hassler's hymn "Elegy" with a percussive take on Thelonious Monk's "Think of One", whose initial recording featured its composer backed by Varner's mentor Julius Watkins, jazz's first French horn crusader. Meanwhile the keyboardist's impish personality comes to the fore not only on his own "Elegy", which has a melody that sounds instantly familiar, but also the hornist's musical portrait of him: "Just Call Me Hans".
More exploratory paths are taken by the two remaining partners. "Play" for instance, featuring Baumann, contrasts a child-like melody with rapid horn arpeggios, while "Circuits", with Friedli, is 46 seconds of horn tones and piano chords. Most Friedli-Varner tracks were, no doubt, instant compositions, since both their names are listed as creators.
Besides his compositions and conception, Varner's furnishes his burnished French horn resonance throughout. No selfish showboater, he expands his lines with such succinct improvisations that he succeeds in making his mates sound as good as their accompaniment sets off his solos.
Beginning and ending with two Varner-composed "hymns" that could actually be parts of the same composition; the hornist has found the perfect connective tissue to draw together all parts of this recital into a self-contained program.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Bursting Hymn* 2. Quasimodo* 3. Strong# 4. What Is This Thing Called First Strike Capability?^ 5. Matisse# 6. Palestrina^ 7. Big George Blues* 8. Soft% 9. Alien Bug# 10.Gabriela% 11. Just Call Me Hans^ 12. Circuits% 13. Johann^ 14. Think Of One^ 15. Big Fall% 16. Funny# 17. Elegy^ 18. Cool^ 19. Play# 20. Tom's Prayer^ 21. Summertime* 22. Barbarians# 23. It Could Happen To You* 24. Transcendent Hymn*
Personnel: Tom Varner (French horn); George Gruntz*, Christoph Baumann#, Hans Feigenwinter^;Gabriela Friedili% (pianos)