Post-Deconstruction: Live at the One Step Down
Cadence Jazz Records 1143

Funny thing about jam sessions: they can either lead to unexpected meetings of minds from disparate musicians, or end up being frustrating exercises in misinterpretation. Mostly, though, they’re a combination of the two, made better or worse by the practice of allowing everyone present to have his say.

Since a distinguished visitor from abroad and some local ringers were involved, this CD, recorded a couple of years ago at a now defunct-Washington, D.C. night spot, is more than a version of the jam tenor saxophonist Peter Fraize and his trio had been hosting at the club for years. Yet, during the 72-plus minutes of the session, the saxophonist, plus bassist Steve Zerlin and drummer Leland Nakamura, joined by second bassist Vattel Cherry, soprano and alto saxophonist Jesse Meman and most notably veteran Italian trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini tweak the musical fare only a bit.

One of the tunes is venerable “St. James Infirmary”, another a standard 12-bar blues and a third an original with a strongly (Thelonious) Monkish cast. The end result is a sound that’s more conventional than you would expect from someone like the self-taught trombonist and more outside than the Washingtonians usually play. Schiaffini, who has led a parallel career in jazz and New music since the late 1960s, is not only a member of the all-star improvising Italian Instabile Orchestra, but contemporary chamber ensembles, and has had solo pieces dedicated to him by composers such as Scelsi, Nono, and Guaccero.

A conservatory teacher, Schiaffini shares pedagogy with Fraize, who besides taking pop and jazz gigs, is director of George Washington University’s jazz program. Both would be familiar with Monk’s “Friday the 13th”, which gets saluted on the trombonist’s “Wednesday the 17th”. The accustomed theme even appears itself near the end, after the band’s rickety-tick version of the new line could be characterized as avant-Dixieland. Not only does the trombonist introduce multiphonics and oblique motion to his solo, but the tenor man wiggles inside and out in a solo that includes high-pitched, trills and overblowing. Bass solos played by Zerlin, who has since moved to California and Manhattan-resident Vattel Cherry, best-known for his membership in saxophonist Charles Gayle’s trio, work in parallel motion with one — probably Cherry — scratching away with his bow, while the other plucks out the beat. When he’s not trading smeary notes with Fraize, soprano and alto saxophonist Jesse Meman, who has worked on the Latin circuit and with Anthony Braxton, spends his time accelerating and retarding the tempo.

On the other hand, his “Everyman’s Blues” is a standard foot tapper where the altoist reaches into the tradition for his trills and runs. Before he literally introduces a two-beat shuffle at the end, Nakamura uses simple rat-tat-tat rhythms that are likely similar to what he uses on his fusion and rock gigs. Both bassists walk and the saxes honk throughout, while the trombonist goes into Tricky Sam Nanton mode for a deep-dish plunger solo.

More illustrative of the groups talents are Schiaffini’s nearly 19-minute “Come Se Fosse Autunno” and Fraize’s “Plain Folk”, which is only about a minute shorter. Built on a tarantella-like bouncy rhythm, the first gives the ‘bone man a chance to showcase his speedy slides and cavernous smears. Meanwhile Meman adds soprano lines on top, as if the two were playing Trad Jazz, while the tenor man’s outing includes tongue-flutters, double-timing and altissimo freak notes. As the horns hocket away in unison the tempo slows down and the tune dribbles away.

Unselfconsciously as down-home as Ornette Coleman’s “Folk Tale”, the second composition easily illustrates its title. Homespun as all get out when playing unaccompanied, Fraize begins running the changes at the top of his horn’s range then moves into aviary scream territory. Less inhibited, he sounds out sharpened semitones in his solo, charging up and down the keys as Nakamura rumbles along below him. Meman and Schiaffini soon get into the act, riffing then swaying back and forth with the theme, until all oral instruments join to take the piece out.

Much of POST-DECONSTRUCTION demonstrates all the good that can come out of a structured jam session, but there are disagreeable parts as well. Democracy in action means that every member of the band gets to solo on every number, and there are times when a tune staggers under the weight of one too many bass and/or drum solos.

Be warned about that. But if you’re interested in some good music from an unheralded band, plus a new setting for a seasoned improviser, this CD may be for you.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. St. James Infirmary 2. Wednesday the 17th* 3. Everyman’s Blues* 4. Come Se Fosse Autunno (As If It Were Autumn) 5. Plain Folk*

Personnel: Giancarlo Schiaffini (trombone); Jesse Meman (soprano and alto saxophones; Peter Fraize (tenor saxophone); Steve Zerlin [all tracks]; Vattel Cherry* (bass); Leland Nakamura (drums)