MICK BECK/STEPHEN GREW

Picture August
Bruce’s Fingers BF 34

EMMANELLE CISI/PAOLO BIRRO
Hidden Songs
Splasc (H) CDH 756.2

Two musicians, two instruments, two countries and two completely different approaches to improvisation are reflected on these two CDs. Ostensibly avant garde, the British improvisers on PICTURE AUGUST have actually created music that’s pretty accessible if you give it a chance. Meanwhile, although HIDDEN SONGS is undoubtedly a relaxed ballad session, the Italian musos challenge the casual listener to find the familiar songs’ buried in their hidden melodies, harmonies or forms.

On his duo session, reedist Mick Beck, best-known as a ferocious tenor saxophonist who has worked with the likes of bassist Simon H. Fell and guitarist Derek Bailey, ups the ante and doubles his reeds by playing bassoon on two numbers. Putting the instrument to uses that its orchestral makers probably never imagined, Beck produces sounds that range from the reverberations of a bull moose’s cry to the kazoo-like squeaks of shredding comb-and-tissue-paper. Proving he can play those Tubby-the-tuba low notes, the saxophonist mostly lets the instrument’s natural echo illuminate the pieces. Meanwhile Grew, who has developed own language of scales and patterns, created music for a dance company and played with saxophonists as different as Lol Coxhill and Andy Sheppard, pretty much goes his own way. However his exposition is formal and sometime heavy-handed, where Beck’s tone is playful and comic.

The natural acoustical feel of the chapel where this session was recorded sometimes give you the feeling that in his work Grew is a few notes away from playing “God Save The Queen” or some Anglican hymn. Bringing a celeste-like sound to some of his higher keyboard excursions, his steady rolling accompaniment is most prominent on “Upflucht”. Turbulently squeezing out distorted burrs and smeary spit, Beck attacks the tune with ascending reed trills. The saxophonist’s open mouthpiece key pops on “A good ballad” (sic) suggest how an inebriate would sound playing — or spraying — this slack tempo piece. Meanwhile, Grew accompanies him with odd note clusters.

Earlier, on “Molten metal”, the saxman’s collection of growling toots actually gets the pianist to not only go two-fisted on him, but figuratively dig his right hand into the keyboard to create his own trills and some harp-like glissandos.

A memorable showing all round.

Much further south and on the European continent, tenor saxophonist Emanuele Cisi and pianist Paolo Birro have come up with a CD of original songs based on pieces by Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Johnny Green and David Raskin. Transmutating the work of these prime tunesmiths may be challenging, though it seems counterproductive, considering the fine work the Turin-born saxist and pianist from Noventa Vicentina turn in on the two tracks written by other composers. J. J. Johnson’s “Lament” is nicely caressed by Cisi, while Birro produces near-stride piano. Then on Kurt Weill’s “This Is New”, the tune moves along on nicely balanced sax lines and left-handed keyboard coloration.

Ballad masters like trumpeters Enrico Rava and Paolo Fresu who have recorded with the saxophonist may have given him the idea for the tempos. While the pianist, who also has a band performing Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Brazilian ballads, worked as part of backing unit for American altoist Lee Konitz, who does this kind of reharmonization as a matter of course.

Overall, the restrained, lilting and luscious sound puts one in mind of those 1970s duo sessions tenorists Stan Getz or Zoot Sims did with pianist Jimmy Rowles. With the operative word here “beauty”, the two frequently join for some unison blends although plenty of breathing space is left in the arrangements. And, although some passages sound like a turnaround waiting for a tune to happen, happy melodies abound. One just wishes that the duo was as interested in instrumental exploration as much as breeziness.

While the session can be recommended to those whose instrumental interest falls into the background category, they may be a little put off, as well. By proving their musicianship by masking these standards in their own compositions, Cisi and Birro may actually anger those who will find the session too avant garde, since paradoxically, they won’t recognize all the tunes.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Picture: 1. Upflucht 2. Is there a race against time 3. The giant and the actress* 4. Molten metal 5. Extract from an abstract* 6. A good ballad 7. Think and whistle 8. Little drummer boy

Personnel: Picture: Mick Beck (tenor saxophone, bassoon*, recorders); Stephen Grew (piano)

Track Listing: Hidden: 1. Do You Remember Me? 2. Aural 3. This Is New 4. Homework 5. End 6. Weatherproof 7. Deeper 8. Lament 9. Out of the Moon

Personnel: Hidden: Emanuele Cisi (tenor saxophone); Paolo Birro (piano)