Lowenhertz 002

While You Wait
Lowenhertz 004

Lowenhertz 003

Perilous Nightwalk
Lowenhertz 005

When is a trio not a trio? When it’s a quartet, is the simplest but enigmatic answer. While that might sound like a statement from Alice In Wonderland, Austrians Löschel/Skrepek/Zrost (LSK) have used electronics and additional instruments to add at least one additional voice to the trio members’ three CDs.

Hannes Löschel plays piano, extended piano, harmonium, melodica, and samples; Martin Zrost works out on alto saxophone, electric bass and samples; and Paul Skrepek tries his hands at drums, electric bow and devices.

Recently, however, keyboardist Löschel has made things even more confusing by creating a new disc, PHL, with a trio of Skrepek and himself, but completed by bassist Peter Herbert. To add to the perplexity, PHL plus Zrost have performed live at least once as a quartet, plus Löschel is part of Antasen, yet another trio, but this time with two improv electronic manipulators.

All of the trio discs have something to recommend them, but it seems that the recordings from 1996 to 2000 by LSK had a winning eccentric bent that isn’t yet matched by PHL.

Switching back and forth from alto saxophone to electric bass, Martin Zrost is a double threat like Wilton Felder of the Crusaders. His shaded alto sax lines give a firmer shape and a tougher top to some of the compositions, which are in the main written by Löschel, if not group efforts, but its his bass rhythms which are more necessary. He prevents the other two from overindulging, puts results into sharper focus and makes performances to work as organic wholes. Bass would also seems to be Zrost’s first love since it was on that instrument that he has played with an extended version of the Viennese electro-acoustic band efzeg.

Skrepek, who has also played with the Ton.Art ensemble and pianist Oskar Aichinger, has strength all right, but he has a tendency to be a bit overbearing and mechanized in his accompaniment, preferring to exhibit unvarying drumbeats when percussion accents would have done as well.

As for the pianist, he’s versatile enough to have performed works inside and under the piano by such straight composers as John Cage and Radu Malfatti, as well as done improvised sessions with electric and acoustic groups, not to mention a duo with Japanese guitarist Taku Sugimoto. But this adaptability can also be detrimental. When playing jazz or improv, there are times when you’re sure whether the romantic classical flourishes, overtly funky adornments or New music attacks he brings to the sessions are intended as expression or burlesque.

Take WHILE YOU WAIT, for instance, which dates from 1996. Divided into 17 short — almost too short — sections, it appears to have been conceived of as the imaginary soundtrack for a retro film noir built around a love triangle, a murder and who knows what else. Thing is, whatever dialogue heard is in English and much of the music ends up coming across as the sort of ersatz jazz in which bands like The Lounge Lizards specialized.

Although the trio members seem to run through a repertoire of effects, instrument switching and extended techniques, lacking a real film you wonder what they’re trying to illustrate. Take “Lily” for instance, a sax and piano ballad. Does Löschel’s mainstream piano symbolize the hero and Zrost’s fruity alto tone the heroine? If so this must be a pretty soppy love scene.

What about “Jobs and People”? Does the roadhouse sax sound, bop piano and drum rolls do anything to amplify the head which reappears three times, each one quicker and funkier than the proceeding one? And does one extract the jazz or the geographic meaning from “Drinnen wie draußen”, which can be translated as “inside as outside”? What begins as a sprightly child-like tune built on mid-range piano chords, cowbell strokes from drums and electric bass thuds first turns into a swinging jazz tune, then dissolves when taped voices, amplified electric bass and (Cecil) Taylorish pianisms come to the fore. Plus if a climax occurs on “Nabbed” with its menacing piano chords and squeaking alto runs, before what appears to be an approximation of machine gun fire is introduced, why the many stops and starts? Is the (anti) hero being chased by the Keystone Kops?

In the end it seems simpler to merely itemize the idiomatic references on the disc, which range from Chicago funk, Jerry Lee Lewis-style rock’n’roll piano and (no surprise from the Viennese) waltzes and ethnic music. Löschel comes up with sections that sound as if he’s playing a harpsichord, a circus calliope, a cheesy organ, a harmonica(!), and a cocktail piano. Not only does he produce left-handed rumbles and what appear to be finger chipping on the sides of the piano keys, but he also fiddles within the instrument as well. While the drummer’s simple flam and paradiddle whacking may make sense in some circumstances, the 33 seconds of cross sticking here seems almost pointless. Zrost somehow approximates baritone sax sounds with his instrument and at one point sounds as if he’s bouncing a bow off his electric bass strings.

A laser souvenir of LSK’s 1996 sojourn in New York, ALBERT is more of the same, but with the band dabbling in electronics. Only four tracks long — although the first is almost 34 minutes — its leitmotif appears to be the integration of found sounds with free improvisation. Most prominently among these sounds are the rambling stories and singing (sic) of the title character, an elderly café patron.

Occasionally using samples and so-called devices to alter the fellow’s voice, you’re not sure whether the robotic undertone complementing his vocalizing on “Pennies From Heaven” is mocking or sympathizing with him. Later, one piano key is sounded over and over again, the bass guitar seems to be practicing runs, the alto saxophone toots and you could swear that garbage can lids are being sounded instead of cymbals for local, percussive color.

Whistling — Alfred’s? A band member’s? — the crackle of low-level electronics, gargles, reed tongue-slaps, bass drum swats and a slide whistle move in and out of the sound mix — as does what appears to be a motor warming up, the wooden smack of the piano side and percussion rumbles. The three obviously had a good time in New York. Guess you hadda be there.

Must more palatable — and more recent — are AY and PERILOUS NIGHTWALK. The former, consisting of eight Löschel compositions, highlights the versatility of the piano man, who also composes chamber works and pieces for dance companies. Frequently lighthearted and quirky, his writing and playing suggest a range that seems to stretch from this side of Herbie Nichols to that side of Misha Mengelberg.

Some tunes, like “Frogs”, originally written for string quartet, have a snaky, irregular rhythm that adds Zrost’s alto explorations to the fun. Others, such as “Villentango”, seem to suggest both European serious music and the herky-jerky beats of Argentina. “Interlude”, originally composed for bass , bass clarinet and violin, is no more — or less — than that. No musical break, it instead appears to be an aural approximations of a cop show. Zrost offers up a steady Red Mitchell-style walking bass, Skrepek creates a pulse like a Teutonic Shelly Manne and Löschel seems to be slinking toward Oscar Peterson territory. “Pinguin” may be the most interesting line of all. Somehow combining a quasi-Latin beat with subtle rim shots and stick crosses from the drummer, there are times when the pianist could be playing the beginning of “West Side Story”.

More tranquil the other discs, PERILOUS NIGHTWALK is described as a homage to John Cage’s “The Perilous Night”. Still, homage to Bill Evans’ and Keith Jarrett’s trios seem to figure more prominently here then anything from Cage. Perhaps it’s due to the presence of Herbert, who though born in Austria has been living in New York since 1989. There he’s worked with such certified this-side-of-neo-cons as trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and pianist Marc Copland as well as been part of drummer Bobby Previte’s The Horse band. Still, you can’t be lead to a place you don’t want to go; so the other two didn’t seem to protest too much. Additionally, seven of the eight pieces here — the last is an instant composition — are written by Löschel.

Not unlike the earlier discs, the pianist moves from subdued to more outrightly swinging sounds, with the cop-show pastiche, “Interlude”, making its appearance again. It’s Herbert who goes the walking bass route this time, while Skrepek, more familiar with its contours, builds his work from a steady snare bang. Löschel again channels Oscar Peterson.

Different versions of “Perilous Nightwalk” bring forth various facets of the prepared piano. Inaudible in some sections of “II”, Löschel creates a harpsichord-like sound that contrasts nicely with Herbert’s woody bass. Despite a fine sandpaper sizzle from Skrepek’s snare, “III” is too truncated to go anywhere. Those sizzles could have easily been left for the subsequent track. But this time, Herbert pulls his bass strings for maximum effect with a strength he hadn’t shown before, while the pianist offers up a prepared piano soundfield.

“Columbos Hat & Shoes”, modeled after the late Thomas Chapin’s “Hat and Shoes” ends up being a semi-tango rather than an Italian aria, with some burlesque (?) Mittel European flourishes added. Bassist and drummer stay respectfully in the background as Löschel goes at the melody and counter melodies with both hands.

While some of the music on these four CDs is a hit and miss affair, Löschel has obviously thought long and hard about how to constitute a trio disc and a trio. He seems to be coming closer with each release and it will be interesting to keep following his progress.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: AY: 1. President 2. Frogs 3. Pinguin 4. Marcalata 5. Interlude 6. Villentango 7. AY: 8. President (Reprise)

Personnel: AY: Hannes Löschel (piano, samples); Martin Zrost (alto saxophone, electric bass, samples); Paul Skrepek (drums)

Track Listing: While 1. Böses Moos 2. Ballade vom guten Benehmen 3. Information 4. Millionaire 5. She didn’t understand 6. Lily 7. Warteschleife 8. Mistake 9. Jobs & People 10. Drinnen wie draußen 11. Footsteps of the Policeman 12. Goldhammer 13. Clips & tips 14. You think I killed Big Lurie 15. Nabbed 16. Chic Ultra 17. Pinguinbeguine

Personnel: While: Hannes Löschel (piano, extended piano; Martin Zrost (alto saxophone, electric bass, samples); Paul Skrepek (drums, electric bow)

Track Listing: 1.Man Power 2. L Café 3. I Max 4. Pennies From Heaven

Personnel: Albert: Hannes Löschel (harmonium, melodica, samples); Martin Zrost (alto saxophone, electric bass); Paul Skrepek (drums, devices)

Track Listing: 1. Perilous Nightwalk I 2. FADES 3. Perilous Nightwalk II 4. Interlude 5. Perilous Nightwalk III 6. Perilous Nightwalk IIII 7. Columbos Hat & Shoes 8. Alpland

Personnel: Perilous: Hannes Löschel (piano, prepared piano); Peter Herbert (bass); Paul Skrepek (drums)