9Winds NWCD0223

Solponticello SP-004

For the uninitiated or the timid, listening to an entire CD of solo bass playing may remind them of a flossing their teeth. Both involve strings and are activities to be endured for as short a time as possible. Think though of what these folks are missing sanitation-wise, not to mention musically.

Few traditional orchestral instruments have evolved in performance as swiftly as the double bass has over the past 50 years. More to the point, much of that evolution has taken place within jazz and improvised music, with players such as Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, William Parker, Peter Kowald and Barry Guy. Building on the advances of these men and others are Italian Klaus Janek and American Ken Filiano, who showcase their craft on these impressive sessions.

Now a Brooklyn-resident with a master’s degree in music from Rutgers University, Filiano has been active on both American coasts, involved with inter-disciplinary performances with poets and dancers, teaching, and playing with musical groups as different as the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, and the Georgian Chamber Orchestra. He has collaborated with ROVA saxophonist Steve Adams, multi-woodwind master Vinny Golia and clarinetist John Carter plus brassmen Paul Smoker, Bobby Bradford and Steve Swell.

Bolzano, Italy-born, Berlin resident Janek, exhibits more similarities than geography to Kowald, the late German master bassist. During the course of his CD, which is in essence a 42-minute improvised bass concerto, like the older man, he sometimes hums and sings along with the bass notes he produces. Also, as Kowald did a couple of times, Janek traveled by bus throughout the U.S. in 2000, playing with sympathetic musicians along the way. That’s probably why his CD is on an American label. Involved with theatre and dance performances, the bassman’s associates have included German improvisers like drummer Willi Kellers and tenor saxophonist Thomas Borgmann plus Americans such as guitarist Gary Lucas and pianist Borah Bergman, as well as the electronic improvisational dance band DeeQ.

An intricate, highly visual piece CASPAR can be heard as pure program music. Its eight tracks attempt to replicate the flood of sights, smells, and sounds, Kaspar Hauser, Germany’s so-called “wild boy” of the 19th century would have experienced once he emerged at 16, from living in a pitch dark, straw-filled container, about 2 metres long, 1 metre wide, and 1.5 metres high.

Most of the suite involves great sawing swaths of arco bass, thumping, bumping, buzzing and rumbling. Sometimes Janek creates two complementary sounds, one a madman like whine from his highest string position, the other a steady, unvarying tone from the mid-rage of the instrument. There’s even one point when he goes Kowald one better, scat singing and apparently tap dancing along with his plucked notes.

Climax comes midway through the session, as speedy squeaks in the strings’ highest pitch suggest a violin. Made up of staccatissimo sopranino tones, alleviated with drollops of silence, you may think you’re hearing a reed’s aviary trills rather than string sounds, as well as a replication of a termite busily burrowing into the whorl of the wood. Still later, barely audible arco drones mixed with irregular silences and light string buzzes are succeeded by glottal yodels sprayed through its S-holes into the instrument itself. Cantors davening in the synagogue would seem to be the source of those notes, but no Jewish liturgical music ever featuring the accompaniment of a bow battering all four bass strings at once. After the string output becomes more violent and shrill — alluding to Hauser’s murder in 1833 perhaps — Janek slowly unfolds a wordless baroque-type melody, bowed and hummed in perfect unison as if he was an avant-garde Slam Stewart. Final notes — alluding to death’s liberation? — come from a happy-sounding, folk-like tune.

If Janek’s CD is program music, then Filiano’s is pure showcase, outlining what he can do with just the bass, his bow, a set of bells and, at various times, several sticks placed horizontally and strategically between the strings. More committed to the darkest register of his instrument than Janek, Filiano can bow a passage with such finesse that the resulting chord often appears to come from a bassoon or a French horn rather than his four strings.

Other bass players may figure that some of the sounds here result from overdubbing two basses. At least they’ll hope that happened. For if not, Filiano has figured out how to play two basses at once, one creating low augmented tones and the other which simultaneously turns out high-pitched squeaks. Then again, those artfully placed sticks could have something to do with how multi-string reverberations often appear, whether he’s playing arco or pizzicato.

This is really noticeable on “Relay”, a clinking, sprightly melody, which at time echoes Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful”. Not only do the tones echo back and forth, but at times they also seem to ricochet from one string to another.

Less verbal than Janek or the late Kowald, the only time Filiano verbally incites his fingers is on the final track, where a sprightly pizz part — again in the lowest register — makes a few forays into the treble clef, vying for attention with the resonating clunk of the sticks placed horizontally under the strings above the bridge.

His truest link to the ongoing free jazz tradition is shown on the penultimate track, though, which joins his “Crucible’ and Bradford’s “Woman”. Beginning with steady string tugs in standard jazz tempo, cymbal-like sounds are also heard courtesy of those vibrating rods. Percussively striking this string-stick combination with his bow, Filiano builds the theme to a stop-time crescendo, succeeded by the tinkle of tiny bells. Jingling tones continue throughout the remainder of the track, contrasting with the low-pitched theme. Targeting it with an archer’s finesse, the end product sounds like what would happen if a Tibetan bell tree was adopted by Delta bluesmen.

Clearly and cleanly recorded, either or both of these sessions should be heard by those who fear lone bull fiddles more than rampaging bulls. Listening won’t hurt a bit, and will likely convert them to the truism many of us know: it’s the music not the instrument(s) that matters.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Caspar: 1. Part I 2. Part II 3. Part III 4. Part IV 5. Part V 6. Part VI Suite Crescendo/e/Battendo/Cantando 7. Part VII 8. Prayer Beads

Personnel: Caspar: Klaus Janek (bass)

Track Listing: Subvenire: 1. Water Down Stone 2. Breathingdreaming 3. Relay 4. Lucerne 5. Non sequitur 6. Tangram 7. Without Words 8. Crucible/Woman 9. Dancing Shadows

Personnel: Subvenire: Ken Filiano (bass, bells)