ARUNDO DONAX

Dancers In Love
Splasc (H) Records CHD 742.2

TIM BERNE
The Sevens
New World 80586-2

Voiced properly, a saxophone quartet can perform with either the delicacy of an chamber string configuration or with the vigor and tempo of a New Orleans brass band. Because its musical history is so brief as well — Adolphe Sax only invented the instrument circa 1840 — the possibilities for invention and innovation with four reeds also seem almost limitless.

Each of these discs offers an excellent take on the joys of sax. More traditional, the Italian-based Arundo Donax ensemble follows aggregations such as the World Saxophone Quartet that create an all-reed showcase for jazz standards. Each soloist also gets to show off his improvisational prowess.

Conversely, Brooklyn-based alto saxophonist Tim Berne presents a combination of written and improvised sections on his CD. Two of his through-composed pieces feature the Swiss-based, ARTE (saxophone) Quartett, while others are showcases for French guitarist Marc Ducret and American guitarist/remixer David Torn. The more-than-25 minutes of the longest track add Berne on alto and guitarist Ducret to improvise on top of ARTE’s reading of his score.

Named for the herbaceous perennial grass from the Mediterranean that’s the source for woodwind reeds, the Arundo Donax quartet for the most part performs numbers from the canon of the preeminent American’ 20th century composer: Duke Ellington on DANCERS IN LOVE. During his long career as a bandleader, Ellington wrote many features for saxophone sections and Arundo Donax undertakes a combination of famous and obscure tunes written between 1928 to 1968. Uniformly creamy reed voicings bring out the comeliness of the tunes, but unfortunately the arrangements don’t approach any of the toughness that Ellington brought to the same material.

Still, the four are proficient enough to sometimes provide an original take on familiar tune, as they do with 1928’s “The Mooche”. Arranged, like the majority of the other numbers by Naples-born tenor saxophonist Mario Raja, it shows the sure hand of a man who has written and arranged for movies, television and groups ranging from combos to orchestras, including New York’s Mingus big band and bands led by himself and pianist Giorgio Gaslini.

Taken at a higher pitch than Ellington did, and given a more modern cast, featured soloist is baritone saxophonist Rossano Emili, who has played with the Italian Instabile Orchestra as well as with Gaslini. As the others modulate in lockstep, Emili creates variations on the theme, producing enough swing with one horn to take the place of an entire orchestra.

Altoist Pietro Tonolo bundles Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s 1956 composition “The Star Crossed Lovers”, into a blanket of notes. Venetian-born, he has worked with other arch romantics like Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava and as part of pianist Gil Evans’ Orchestra. Here Raja’s arrangement allows the four together to sound like a string section and to blend their tones together into unison prettiness. Another highlight is Tonolo’s variations on Ellington’s “UMMG”. Well-recorded enough to isolate each of the reedman’s individual sounds, the tune approximates the sounds of New York’s upper west side. After a while, though, you wish that the band didn’t so often resemble a MOR vocal group like the LA Voices, always playing in unison.

This irritation is compounded on non-Ducal fare like “After The Kiss”, written by soprano saxophonist Pasquade Laino, whose background encompasses membership in the Italian klezmer band KlezRoym, pop-jazz with Mango and theatre music. With Raja exhibiting a light (Stan) Getzian tone and the massed saxophone notes cascading like a waterfall, the smoothness of the performance seems to inch it towards sweet band rather than swing band territory.

All in all, DANCERS IN LOVE is pleasant enough and rife with impressive arrangements. But Arundo Donax’s use of the voices of the sax quartet is as conventional as its use in any number of similar groups.

That’s not something you would say about THE SEVENS, which showcases original concepts to each of its six tracks. Most traditional is “Repulsion”, featuring a straight reading of Berne’s score by the classically oriented ARTE Quartett, whose other collaborators have ranged from Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber to American composer Terry Riley. Performed mostly in unison with the four saxophones phrasing as if they were united as a giant many-pitched instrument, the wistful tune ends with the music gradually leaking into the air.

“Reversion”, Torn’s remix of the track, manipulates the quartet’s source material as constant percussive sounds and cartoon-like calliope sounds. The endproduct finds his fiery guitar playing looping over the massed horn samples. He does something similar with Ducret’s bottleneck guitar solo, adding feedback guitar treatments and pseudo organ washes in such a way that “Tonguefarmer” morphs from an acoustic recital to something moved by a Bo Diddley beat.

Centrepiece of the album is the more than 25-minute “Quicksilver”, featuring all five saxophones and Ducret. Beginning with the ARTE's four members playing lockstep in different keys, you can make out the sigh of the soprano, the alto’s mocking tone, the screech of the tenor and the burbling rumble of the baritone. Then with the other horns cushioning him, Berne starts playing variations on his theme, trilling, overblowing and double-timing. Modulating down to a march beat, he then ratchets his solo up with some quasi-funk, complete with honks and wheezes. An unaccompanied interregnum from the altoist, deliberately played sharp, is done allegro as the others stay andante. Later on, Ducret joins in to move the proceedings into what is almost a definite dance tempo, as Berne begins circling around and trading licks with the guitarist’s steel strings. Finally, turning pastoral he gradually decelerates the sounds as a crescendo of unison quartet reeds combine into what sounds like a woodwind harmonium.

Taking advantage of the saxophone quartet’s many voicings, Berne has created a memorable, original composition which overshadows Arundo Donax’s proficient, but technical recreations.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Dancers In Love 2. Meditation 3. The Mooche 4. Ein Bokek 5. UMMG Variations 6*- 12.

Personnel: Pasquade Laino (soprano saxophone); Pietro Tonolo (sopranino* and alto saxophone); Mario Raja (tenor saxophone); Rossano Emili (baritone saxophone)

Track Listing: 1. Repulsion^ 2. Sequel Why+ 3. Reversion^% 4. Quicksand^*+ 5. Tonguefarmer+% 6. Sequel Ex+

Personnel: ARTE Quartett [Beat Hofstetter (soprano saxophone); Sascha Armbruster (alto saxophone); Andrea Formenti (tenor saxophone); Bert Kappeler (baritone saxophone)]^; Tim Berne (alto saxophone)*; Marc Ducret (acoustic guitar)+; David Torn (electric guitars, loops, sonic redistribution)%