Open Songs
Altrisuoni AS 108

RecRec Music CD 75 EFA 05179

Swiss pianist Michel Wintsch posses a streak of romanticism that’s a mile wide and just as deep. How else would you explain the inclusion on his trio session of tunes by chansonniers Jacques Brel, Gilbert Bécaud and other Continental sentimentalists?

Sure by the time he’s finished with a tune like Bécaud’s “Et Maintenant” — which English-speakers know as “What Now My Love” — he’s deconstructed it into a potent improv exercise. But many times at the beginning or middle of standards or his own lush compositions, he appears to be reigning in his emotions just before he stumbles into André Gagnon or Roger Williams territory.

Luckily, the Geneva-based pianist’s choice of playing partners here, American drummer Gerry Hemingway, and bassist Bänz Oester from Bern, who it must be admitted does do pop and chanson gigs, are solid enough to act like musical Viagara. Their presence stiffens up the performances before they dive into mawkishness. That’s what makes OPEN SONGS a memorable disc.

WHISPERINGS is notable for another reason. With the other musicians from a definite non-jazz background — British guitarist Fred Frith is an improv/art rocker; experimental Swiss vocalist Franziska Baumann a specialist in electronically processed sound; and drummer Bernard Trontin is a member of Swiss sampling pioneers The Young Gods — it’s usually up to the keyboardist to try to move the sound away from rock’s version of sentimentality. Unfortunately he doesn’t succeed as often as he should.

To deal with OPEN SONGS first, the trio’s nearly 16-minute version of the Bécaud tune provides an example of how the three treat the material here. Commencing with a simple, pianistic run-through of the melody, by the five-minute mark Wintsch is creating fleet-fingered variations, jockeying with the chords, pitch and tempos, slowing down and speeding up. Soon, as he begins exploring the left side of the keyboard with a weightlifters touch and massaging the pedals — and before Hemingway bears down on his toms, snare and cymbals at a steam engine pace — Oester has a short, understated solo. Soon you can hear Wintsch jabbing more sharply and more fiercely at the chords as the bassist produces some forceful flamenco-style strumming. Finally, at the bull fiddle’s highest pitch, Oester sounds out the theme.

A similar transformation occurs with Angel Cabral and Enrique Dizeo’s “La Foule”. Although it too is a slice of Euro-romanticism, the pianist’s playing is laser sharp so that the notes are separated enough to not allow the tune to fall into a mawkish, nightclub ambiance. After some two-handed variations on the theme, with the occasional locked hand accent, Wintsch indulges in some rococo double timing, rousing to applause the audience at the Swiss jazz festival where the track was recorded.

Conversely, the instant compositions such as “Isablue” recall some of the less histrionic improvisations of pianist Keith Jarrett’s Standards trio. As the pianist circles around the melody, the bassist tugs out a counter melody of his own, producing some bluesy asides as the drummer tries for a wavering shuffle beat. Other pieces include the sort of swing that most folks would designate as so-called “real” jazz. However, the brief “2 pm”, rife with inside-the-piano rumbles and clink of bass strings, as if Wintsch and Oester were performing in a New music recital.

If there is a weakness here it relates to the soppy melancholy which is as generic to the chanson as profanity is to rap. Playing some of the melodies a little too straight sometimes leaves the listener with the feeling that he may have wandered into an all-instrumental concert made up of Barry Manilow’s or Peter Allen’s greatest hits.

No singer is present on OPEN SONGS, but most of the 11 murmurings on WHISPERINGS include vocalized interpolations from Baumann. Bern-based and someone who claims to have developed her so-called acoustic scenery through projects spanning several media, she has also recorded with other experimenters like violinist Charlotte Hug and drummer Fritz Hauser. Here though, the vocal product sounds like a weird amalgam of the styles of No waver Lydia Lunch, New Thing vocalist Patty Waters, disco diva Donna Summer and the Teutonic recitations of early Velvet Underground chanteuse, Nico.

On “Purple line”, for instance, her falsetto cries and reverberating screeches are straight from No Wave territory, as is her speaking in tongues. Someone — Frith? — seems to be creating pile driver, bandsaw-like, heavy metal guitar runs, which appear to bring forward a dance-like rhythm from Wintsch on electric keyboards. Similarly, despite his pedigree, drummer Trontin, apparently can produce nothing more than standard rock beats. Things are even less coherent on “Reversed Bridges” with the percussionist sounding as if he’s replicating the drum machine from Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”, the pianist producing lazy electric piano washes, the guitar chirping like a cricket and the vocalist’s yodeling joined by French-accented mumbling from a male voice.

Elsewhere, some of the menacing electronic music with an overactive distortion pedal and echoing keyboard wooshes must have reminded Frith of his time with John Zorn’s avant-metal Naked City band. Considering the pure volume and density of some of the sounds, it would seem that overdubbing was used as well. Baumann tries some vaguely Arabic sounding vocalese at one point, then there’s a section of “Lunatic Fringe” (sic), where the lyrics appear to be “ga ga ga”. Her buzz-like flute screeds also add little to the general conception, while the drummer often seems as likely to turn the beat around as to create constant repetitive hammering. Overall, it would seem that trying to transcend jazz-inflected improvised music has resulted in a conception of maudlin banality with overwhelming amplification and rhythms.

Perhaps if your preference is for rock-influenced, so-called experimentation, WHISPERINGS may rank higher on your hit parade. For the average improv fan, though, OPEN SONGS is the preferred disc here.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Open: 1. 1. Offret 2. La Plat Pays 3. Isablue 4. Ne Me Quittes Pas 5. Path of Rain 6. La Foule (Que nadie sepa mi sufrir) 7. Walking In 8. Et Maintenant 9. 2 pm

Personnel: Open: Michel Wintsch (piano); Bänz Oester (bass); Gerry Hemingway (drums)

Track Listing: Whisperings: 1. Sleeping in a Dream 2. Lunatic Fringe 3. Candles Ahead 4. Reversed Bridges 5. Sirènes 6. Curé’s omelette 7. Operatic tchaess 8. Purple line 9. Curious grass 10. Nice giant 11. Two stars (instead of one)

Personnel: Whisperings: Franziska Baumann (voice, flute, electronics); Fred Frith (guitars); Michel Wintsch (piano, electronics, samples); Bernard Trontin (drums, percussion)