TRIO VIRIDITAS

waxwebwind@ebroadway
Clean Feed CF 003 CD

As first-generation European Energy players reach middle age and beyond it’s interesting to see them adopt strategems already tried by their American counterparts. Most commonly, they seem to be pacing themselves, preserving their strength for distinctive showcases. As well, there appears to be a new interest in ballad playing. Underneath it all, though, whether the musician in question is Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor Peter Brötzmann, or in this case Alfred Harth, proficiency wins out in the end.

German saxophonist Harth, who was working with such driving players as Brötzmann, pianist Heiner Goebbels, British vocalist Phil Minton and the Swedish percussionist Sven Åke Johansson as long ago as the early 1970s, was often described as having a tone like Archie Shepp’s. And there are times at the beginning of this disc recorded with Trio Viriodtas, a co-op filled out by Americans, bassist Wilber Morris and percussionist Kevin Norton, that Harth’s low key balladic tone makes you wonder if, like Shepp, he’s trying to cover up a loss of lip.

The program picks up considerably as the 12 selections over almost 68 minutes unreel. By the end of the disc you wonder what those initial concerns were. Harth, who has also composed music for films and theatre productions, recorded this CD on New York’s East Broadway and most of the tunes seem to reflect his outsider’s view of he city’s Lower East Side, especially it’s restaurants.

For the first five numbers, Harth exhibits a deep, breathy tenor saxophone tone that suggests Shepp’s recasting of Ben Webster’s, which when paired with Norton’s vibes also brings to mind BAGS & TRANE, John Coltrane’s mainstream meeting with Milt Jackson. Throughout, Morris takes so much of the weight on his shoulders —and bass — that you don’t even notice the lack of steady drumming.

Even here, though, the reedist is no Old Lion. On saxophone he introduces a bit of reed-biting, slap-tonguing and even some percussive spetrofluctuation to make his sound bigger. On clarinet, his trills and air hisses are a perhaps-unintentional tribute to Jimmy Giuffre, who proved in the early 1960s that a clarinet could produce advanced music without being shrill.

Eye-opening and longest tune, “Interstice” written by Morris, finds the composer plucking the taunt strings beneath his instrument’s bridge while Norton creates percussion sounds that resemble sand rustling in a foil plate, and Harth wiggles lines from his clarinet. On tenor saxophone, he then creates enough intense, weeping multiphonics that the piece starts to resemble one of those John Coltrane-Pharoah Sanders freak outs of the 1960s, as Norton gets into the mood by smashing his cymabls and battering away on the toms and snares. Eventually, the horn climbs to the altissimo range as Morris (probably) begins wordlessly vocalizing along with the strong thrusting bow work, again suggesting the chants that enlivened some of Trane’s compositions at the time. Finally, the storm subsides, the percussionist goes back to panning gold with his auciliary instruments, the bass sounds an occasional tone and the saxophone quietly growls.

Things pick up from then on. For example, “Age pl @ mandarin court” — initiated by a visit to a Chinese restaurant perhaps — finds press rolls introducing a hearty Oriental imperial court march from the saxophone, then relaxes into click-clacks of stick percussive that in the right hands could be crated by chopsticks. Following a stop-time tenor excursion that gets louder and wilder, Morris reintroduces the theme with string patterns that could come from a pipa, the four-stringed traditional Chinese lute.

“Cue (ball) #1” uses the thump of the bass and flams and paradiddles of the snares and sticks to recreate the balls-and-table atmosphere of a pool hall. But should we hear the whiny scratch of a bow on a cymbal as a stick being tempered? Plus what about the unaccompanied clarinet solo followed by silence. Did someone miss the pocket?

On the other hand, the liquid multiphonics spilling from Harth’s clarinet on “Major Airports” recalls Eric Dolphy’s dissonance a lot more than flight plans. Plus the bending of clarinet and bowed bass on “Fur die katz’s dell (ght)” has a distinct Mingus sound about it, which might only be explained by the late bassist/composer’s large capacity for food. That would definitely be satisfied at cavernous Katz’s Deli on Houston, honored by this composition of Harth.

Trying to interpret the CD as program music is probably reductive though. Suffice it to say that with everyone pulling his weight Trio Viriditas come across as an exceptional debut session by three fine musicians. Listen to it and you’ll probably want to sample it again.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing:1. From The North 2. Braggadoclo 3. Auda-city 5. Starbucks 6. Interstice 7. Fur die katz’s dell(ght) 8. Cue(ball) #1 9. Age pl @ mandarin court 10. Route 23 11. Starbucks variation 12. Major airports

Personnel: Alfred Harth (tenor saxophone, clarinet); Wilber Morris (bass); Kevin Norton (drums, vibraphone, percussion)