Red Sun
EWM 51172

Intakt 075

Back in the pre-feminist 1950s, jazz critic Leonard Feather put together a “cats verses chicks” jam session. On it, an all-female band including vibist Terry Pollard and guitarist Mary Osborne went head to head with an equal number of male musicians including vibist Terry Gibbs and guitarist Tal Farlow, trading solos on such appropriate tunes as “Anything You Can Do … I Can Do Better”. The sentiment seemed to be that this would prove that women could play jazz just as well as men.

While subsequent and preceding decades have produced distaff jazzers as good or better than their male counterparts, the idea of comparing particular musicians as to gender seems as antiquated as concern about the racial make up of sports teams. As point of reference Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier’s trio is all female, while Dutch pianist Jeroen Van Vliet and his associates all are male. Yet the differences between these two fine sessions have almost nothing to do with the gender of the participants. Very simply, any more antithetical approaches to a modern jazz piano trio session then these groups have found, are practically non-existent.

Van Vliet, who has been linchpin of bassist Eric van der Westen’s band since its formation in 1995, is an unabashed romantic, who has also written for dance and film. His third solo album, RED SUN, finds him smack-dab in the middle of the impressionist jazz tradition. But careful listening to the playing and writing here — all the tunes but two miniatures are his — reveals a chilly intelligence underneath the romance, sort of like an updated Paul Bley.

More experimental, PASSAGGIO, featuring three of the world’s most accomplished free improv practitioners. There’s Courvoisier, who often works with American violinist Mark Feldman as well as veterans such as Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli and American cellist Erik Friedlander; French bassist Joëlle Léandre, known as a paramount interpreter of the work of John Cage as well as an improviser with other master musicians such as British guitarist Derek Bailey and Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer; and American drummer Susie Ibarra, whose sound has been an important part of groups led by saxophonist John Zorn and David S. Ware and bassist William Parker.

Cast in the form of a suite, Van Vliet’s CD features a dozen compositions, and during the course of which he proves that attributes like beauty and delicacy are not exclusively feminine traits. There are times, however, that the pianist seems to be pacing himself to not press too firmly on the keys. Another weakness is that for all the passion expended, these tunes, which range from a little more than six minutes all the way down to barely one minute, appear to have been constructed with a POMO sensibility. That is, unlike, say, a 19th century tale which would sum up its message at the end, these compositions are more like 20th or 21st century short stories: many of them end without coming to a resolution. Perhaps, though, like New Criticism analysis which is concerned more with the words than their meaning, RED SUN should be seen as being affected by resonance and tone, rather than forward motion.

This is particularly noticeable on “I Never Said Goodbye”, which sounds more like a lullaby than a leave taking. Bassist Frans Van Der Hoeven, a fellow Netherlands native, who has played with everyone from American brassman Art Farmer to the Dutch Jazz Orchestra, has a carefully delineated solo here. But rather than challenging the treatment, he too sounds as if he’s carefully moving small butterfly specimens from glass case to case without upsetting anything.

“Glider”, one of those Pat Metheny/Bill Frisell-like country-flavored ballads, offers more of the same. Van Der Hoeven’s to-the-point solo appear to be limited to a few notes before he works his way back to the melody, which earlier had been defined from the piano’s highest keys. Even the title track is so slow moving that it’s barely there. The bassist seems to be merely tickling his instrument, while Belgian drummer Dré Pallemaerts is reduced to being a mere colorist with minute snare smacks and tiny cymbal reverberations on his palate. This probably reminded him of his New York period playing with American pianist Fred Hersch, but one would think he had a larger role as part of Belgium guitarist Philip Catherine’s group and the Brussels Jazz Orchestra.

Although there are times you feel like slipping the three an alarm clock to wake them up during some of the almost motionless passages, that near stasis is obviously the group’s chosen style, although the most memorable tunes here seem to be those which swing — albeit sensitively— rather than only setting moods.

On “Derwisj”, the disc’s longest piece, a mid-tempo ballad, the three have created something that sounds instantly familiar and which is helped by the impeccable recording done in Oslo by ECM’s favorite engineer. Van Vliet at one point unveils a small flurry of notes and at another creates some double timing arpeggios. Pallemaerts responds with some light cross sticking, though that then causes the pianist to stop himself, as if he was getting too showy.

Finally there’s “Solid Air”, an out-and-out swinger. While the pianist still suggests Evans’ work on KIND OF BLUE, at least he’s using the entire keyboard — sometimes ostentatiously so. Van der Hoeven double times and the drummer plays his best solo of the date as well, roaming the kit for snare rolls, cymbal scratches and a steady tom tom beat — though he does it too in a definitely unpretentious manner.

Moving from Oslo to Zürich, Switzerland, we find 12 instant compositions performed by three musicians unlike any others. Although the burlesque trappings of some of Léandre’s more vocal performances are missing, the three seem to be having a grand time. There’s no overt humor, but neither is there the sombreness that intentionally or not, Van Vliet & Co., appeared to portray. Definitely improvised music, many of the Courvoisier tracks begin with silence, as the three seem to be discussing what they will be playing next.

As with many other session in which she’s featured, bassist Léandre could carry the entire performance by herself. During the course of these 51-odd minutes, she draws falsetto screeches from her instrument’s strings; scratches its wood, sides and pegs; strums it like a giant guitar; plucks it like a Dixielander’s bull fiddle; (wo) manhandles it so you can hear the wood reverberating as the strings pull; bows away as if she was replicating the sound of a swarm of insects; and offers up other arco legerdemain that transforms her four strings into that of an entire orchestral string section.

Not that the other two are far behind in inventiveness. Homegirl Courvoisier ‘s work ranges from producing speedy, restless, piano patterns to gliding over they keys with massed arpeggios and using implements and her hands to mute the keyboard action inside the piano. Other times she’ll stroke the internal strings as if they were really inside a harp and bang the sides and cover for additional percussive notes. Individual in approach, there’s still a point, almost at the end of the disc, when she and Ibarra duet like Max Roach and Cecil Taylor ranging hell bent for leather — or wood — over all parts of their respective instruments.

From her position, the drummer alternates between loudness and silence. Momentarily, she produces a ghostly cymbal continuum or what could be precious glass hit every so slightly. Then she’ll build up to a crescendo of tapping or knocking snare work that sounds as if she’s outside a door and wants in. Rattling chains, bells and tam tams, often a distinct Oriental gong reverberation will appear as well.

Military march time makes its appearance here, as does the closest thing to traditional jazz tempo on “Taktlos 2”. As Léandre moves from European classical harmonics to American country hoedown suggestions with a flick of her bow, Ibarra suddenly stops cross sticking on the drum rims and produces a deep Gene Krupa-like swing bass drum sound.

Nothing is done in isolation, of course. Never does it seem that one musician is the patriarchal leader and the others merely sidefolk. On “Mini Four”, for example, Courvoisier’s fleet passages at the top of her range are altered by Léandre’s arco pyrotechnics and Ibarra’s approximations of Aboriginal tambourine music. Soon all are in the forefront, improvising at the same level of loudness. “Taktlos 3” works that way as well, where straightforward swing from the piano and bop cymbal work moves in and out of standard time led by the bassist lacerating the highest part of her string set and the section behind the extended bridge. What results is music that is as outside, as it is inside.

At times, as well, the three are involved in such a cauldron of group improvisations that you’re not sure which instrument produces which sound, something that never happens on RED SUN.

Unabashed free improv fans, who want to experience the full range of a piano trio, should seek out PASSAGIO. Those whose tastes run more to quieter and less confrontational sounds will probably be more impressed by RED SUN.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Prologue 2. Like Fall 3. Still 4. Glider 5. Red Sun 6. Thaw 7. Solid Air

8. So Long, Brother 9. Oslo 10. Derwisj 11. I Never Said Goodbye 12. Epilogue

Personnel: Jeroen van Vliet (piano); Frans van der Hoeven (bass); Dré Pallemaerts (drums)

Track Listing: 1. Mini one 2. Mini two 3. Mini three 4. Mini four 5. Mini five 6. Taktlos encore 7. Taktlos 1 8. Taktlos 2 9. Taktlos 3 10. Fact one 11. Fact two 12. Fact three

Personnel: Sylvie Courvoisier (piano); Joëlle Léandre (bass); Susie Ibarra (drums)