LISBON IMPROVISATION PLAYERS

Live_Lx Meskla
Clean Feed 007

ERNESTO RODRIGUES/MARCO FRANCO/JOSÉ OLIVERA
23 Exposures
Creative sources CS 003

While no one outside of a few die-hard British musos would claim that jazz and free improv are completely antithetical, over the past two decades, they have in many instances become separate musics. To be simplistic Jazz is concerned with telling a story to the best of your technical ability; improv is about making — or proving — a point, utilizing whatever methodology you feel is best. For the true music fan neither of these attributes should be scorned.

Because of this dichotomy though, a group of younger musicians now must carefully slip between the two idioms, the way others in their generation play both jazz and pop, or jazz and Latin music or jazz and so-called New music. This can be a necessity, as well, when the scene for such sounds is even smaller then in large jazz centres such as New York, Chicago Paris or London. Soprano saxophonist Marco Franco, for instance, is featured on both these CDs of experimental music from Portugal. But on LIVE_LXMESKLA he’s working the free jazz side of the fence, whereas 23 EXPOSURES is pure improv. Similarly his two partners on the first disc and four on the other one walk a comparable tightrope.

Product of the Lisbon Improvisation Players (LIP), LIVE features a saxophone-heavy band organized by alto and baritone player Rodrigo Amado and drummer Acácio Salero. Incorporating different strains of experimenting Portuguese musicians, its output lists towards the freebop side of the free spectrum. Leader Amado played with Franco in guitarist Nuno Rebelo’s electro-acoustic Vitriol and in Ploplopot with alto and soprano saxist Paulo Curado. He also has an association with pianist Rodrigo Pinhiero, a colleague of the more experimental free improv types on 23 EXPOSURES, violinist Ernesto Rodrigues and percussionist/ guitarist José Oliveira. Amado and Salero played in a quartet with ROVA’s Steve Adams and New York bassist Ken Filiano, while the baritone player and Curado have recorded with that bassist, and other Americans, trombonist Steve Swell and drummer Lou Grassi.

Best indication of LIP’s lineage is the more than 11½ minutes of “Blue Humans”, which allows each member to expand on his technique. Here the herd of saxophonists do a little dance of aural congruence, then go off playing different lines simultaneously. There are some smooth soprano saxophone trills, an altoist producing neo-R&B honking and a third — possibly Amado — getting into some speedy triple tonguing. Moving from subtle rim shots and open palm drum head caressing to muscle-laden straight sticking, Salero produces enough power for two drummers, one of whom seems capable of replicating Native American Indian rhythms.

“This is Our Music”, with its echo of Ornette Coleman’s 1960 album is where bassist Pedro Gonçalves finally steps forward. Perhaps he’s literally doing so, as a buzzing rumble is created as he goes through his dark, solid solo. His chiming plucks than become the leitmotif of the rhythmically powerful main theme directed by the horns. As tones slide up and down, the high-pitched reeds trills and the baritone produces some stomach tightening growls.

Amado is most notably when his facility allows him to motivate his instrument with a tenor saxophone’s range. On “Song for Bluiett”, however, a sonorous salute to the Wold Saxophone Quartet (WSQ) bottom man, Hamiet Bluiett, his tone is properly resonant, buoyed only by echoing bass plucks and light hi-hat sizzles.

The harmonies produced by the reeds — including Salero who joins in on saxophone on “Conversation Piece” — is impressive is smaller does. Still with all the technical advances from reed explorers, one would have hoped a distinctive 21st Century Portuguese music could have been exhibited. That’s something to wait for in the next LIP release. In terms of praise and blame, as well, with two men playing soprano saxophone and two on alto, noting solo order somewhere would have been fairer and clearer.

If LIP relates to American saxophone quartets like the WSQ, then the music produced by the trio on the other CD can be said to have a British imprint. Concerned with sounds and silence and prefaced by a quote from John Cage about the fascination of noise, the disc has been compared to a photographic exposures. Showcasing greater or lesser sharpness of aural images, it’s part of a series of discs created by Rodrigues, who has a background in improv, classical and pop music, on violin and viola in collaboration with Oliveira and others such as cellist Guilherme Rodrigues and pianist Gabriel Paiuk.

Over the course of the 23 so-called exposures, which range in length from a little more than one minute to just over five — with most in the two and three minute range — reference points are the experimental tone scientist work done by Brit improvisers. Saxophonist John Butcher, violinist Phil Wachsmann, guitarist Derek Bailey and especially percussionist John Stevens come first to mind.

Steven’s non-hierarchical Spontaneous Music Ensemble ethos is echoed here, with each musician doing his best to contribute to the overall sound picture. On the longest track, the violinist exhibits a shrill human-sounding shriek that meet scratching, abrasive sandpaper percussion that soon turn to what appears to be the sounds of mice scampering through the studio. Franco dispenses a series of tongue-slaps that appear to have been born in his mouthpiece alone. Producing a modest, elongated sax tone, the finale winds down with violin strings slashed so quickly that the result resembles a tape machine running backwards.

With the tracks often melting together into many variations on a theme, the catalogue of varied and extended effects often precludes ascription of any one to any instrument. Franco offers bird-like chirps, percussive tongue slaps, spit-defined reed kisses and rhythmic key pops. Olivera highlights nagging cymbal pings, the pealing of tiny bells, the rattle of chains, a bow scratching on the cymbal’s metallic surface and what appears to be toys rolling on drum heads. On guitar, he seems to go Bailey one better, preferring a single note to a chord and a touch to a lick. What picking and plunking that is heard results from Rodrigues’ pizzicato work, which at times seems as if he’s turned the gut string elastic and is gradually using torsion, stretching and wrenching them until they’re on the cusp of breaking. His interest in post-serialism doesn’t preclude the odd, minute arco glissando that produces a so-called classical tone.

Most of the time, though, the reedist and fiddler proceed in such close proximity that the frequent elongated smears and split tones that define many section could come from either of their instruments. This is a challenging but ultimately satisfying listening experience.

Although Franco is the link between these two sessions, it will likely be the vision of the two leaders — Amado and Rodrigues — that will define Portuguese free music for years to come. However, with his foot —and reeds — in both camps, the sax man will continue to be a crewmember on both voyages of discovery.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Lisbon: 1. Lisbon Improvisation Players 2. Blue Humans 3. Song for Bluiett 4. Memory of a Free Festival 5. Conversation Piece * 6. This is Our Music

Personnel: Lisbon: Marco Franco (soprano saxophone); Pedro Curado (soprano and alto saxophones); Rodrigo Amado (alto and baritone saxophones); Pedro Gonçalves (bass); Acácio Salero (drums, saxophone on*)

Track Listing: 23: 1. 01.31 2. 02.01 3. 02.20 4. 02.31 5. 03.16 6. 02.16 7. 01.22 8. 01.56 9. 02.18 10. 01.58 11. 05.02 12. 03.02 13. 02.53 14. 01.55 15. 03.13 16. 03.28 17. 02.57 18. 03.48 19. 02.11 20. 03.11 21. 02.14 22. 03.19 23. 02.31

Personnel: 23: Marco Franco (soprano saxophone); Ernesto Rodrigues (violin, viola); José Oliveira (percussion, acoustic guitar)