PATRICK ZIMMERLI & OCTURN

The Book of Hours
Songlines SGL-1541-2

JEFF KAISER
17 Themes for Ockodektet
PfMentum CD 010

Fashioning large-scale compositions for a group of improvising players can be approached in at least two ways. One is to create parts for particular musicians, go over every semidemiquaver of the score and through a series of rehearsals and road trips perfect the performance so it’s note-perfect and ready to be recorded under optimum studio conditions.

Another way is to gather a bunch of your friends and associates for a live concert honoring some important occasion, bring along a bunch of charts which they may or may not have seen before and have them play them. Capture the whole thing direct to DAT and release the resulting product. Saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli and trumpeter Jeff Kaiser’s CDs offer examples of each of these approaches.

New Yorker Zimmerli has won music prizes, written film scores, string quartets and piano concertos as well as pieces for chamber orchestras, jazz combos and jazz bands. THE BOOK OF HOURS is a 56-minute jazz suite, referencing a medieval monastic tradition when a different prayer was said at seven different times of the day. A superior exercise in chamber jazz, the piece was commissioned and is played by Octurn, a 10-year-old Brussels-based collective led by baritone saxophonist Bo Van der Werf. Before recording in a formation that added American guitarist Ben Monder to the 10-piece ensemble plus Zimmerli on soprano sax, the band with the composer on board toured the composition throughout Belgium for a month.

Ventura, Calif.-based Kaiser conducts, teaches music privately, organizes New music concerts, performs with his own groups and with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich’s Brass Trio, multi-reedist Vinny Golia’s Large Ensemble and anarchistic guitarist Eugene Chadbourne among many others. An ad hoc large orchestra, a bit distantly recorded runs though Kaiser’s newest creations on 17 THEMES. A 40th birthday present to himself, he’s now seven years older than Zimmerli.

As evidenced by his playing partners the Left Coast trumpeter is also from the anything goes school of free improvisation, while the saxophonist could be slotted in the more formal compositional and orchestrational stream that includes the likes of Gil Evans and Gunther Schuller. Besides the fact that that the 17 (sic) musicians on Kaiser’s CD play only 14 (sic) separate tunes, the cheerful anarchy that characterizes the rest of his work extends to the packaging. His disc comes in a paper sleeve inserted inside a two- color cardboard wraparound, illustrated with what looks like items copied from a fanciful mechanical catalogue. In a proper jewel case, the Zimmerli disc on the other hand is beautifully illustrated as if it was a faux medieval illuminated manuscript, with attractive designs depicted on both the booklet cover and the CD itself.

Proper clean lines and bright pastel colors that are part of BOOK OF HOURS’ illustrations reflect the disc’s contents as well. Moving faultlessly through a variety of time signatures, harmonies, melodies and compositional colors, the band members play their parts seemingly without a note out of place. You can often almost sense score pages being turned. More engaging, though, is how Zimmerli has taken the outlines of a pious ceremony and used compositional alchemy to make the multi-movement suite both secular and energetic. By the same token he hasn’t let the ensemble’s (in this case) two drummers, two electric guitarists and two electric bassists force the sounds into a harder fusion mold. Instead his BOOK OF HOURS seems to be ticking away somewhere near the time when cool was born.

Among the themes are four small group contrapuntal interludes which allude to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. Featuring no more than fleeting recapitulation’s of the famous riff, they add to the suite’s reverent quality.

Don’t imagine this as a jazz version of monastic plainchant, though. Octurn can certainly swing, albeit lightly. Over the course of the disc you hear thick bass guitar vamps; metre-changing drumming which sometimes sounds like horses hooves and other times distinctive Afro-Cuban percussion; thick ostinato chords; muted trumpet and ethereal soprano saxophone sections. There are times when the entire ensemble swells to resemble a medieval cathedral organ; plus piano parts which suggest montuneando at certain points or the output of a 16th century virginal elsewhere. There are references to the rondo, alternating melodies, 12-tone structures and even the blues.

It’s only on the last where the band falls down. While trombonist Geoffroy De Masure tries hard and trumpeter Laurent Blondiau even harder so that he gets a bit of grit into his solos, no one is ever going to confuse either of them for Al Gray or Cootie Williams respectively. Muted interludes and staccato blasts are handled by the brass and horns with aplomb, as are the contortions pianist Fabian Fiorini is sometimes asked to go through, but this isn’t a band of distinctive soloists. Even in their brief features, Monder and Zimmerli as well, seem uncharacteristically pale.

So celebrate THE BOOK OF HOURS as an exceptionally well-written festival feature that swings gently in pristine sound.

No one would ever say the latter about 17 THEMES, which at times comes across as so distinct and murky that certain parts are almost lost. Then again Kaiser had to balance the contributions of five more musicians than Zimmerli, not to mention oddball instruments like the euphonium, tuba, prepared acoustic guitar, electronics and a theremin in an open-air space.

With titles quirkier and more complicated than Zimmerli’s time-of-day themed compositions, the trumpeter has come up with two suites of music where themes run right into one another despite individually numbered tracks. Upfront though, with the band members operating at a high-energy level reminiscent of Trane’s ASCENSION band or The Globe Unity Orchestra. Dense sounds like these often depend on pure emotion and stick-to-it-ness to succeed and the group has both of those attributes in spades.

In the first suite the lumbering, swaying beast takes its shape from the rumbling ostinato pulse provided by the three percussionists and Mark Weaver’s tuba blasts. When the cacophony lessens it often appears as if there’s a contest on between shaking, screeching brass and smeary woodwind trills. As parallel echoing cries from cross blowing flutists mix with saxophone split tones while electronics and percussion build up a curtain of intense power, the odd a capella respite by vaporous oboe or muted Baroque trumpet at least lightens the mood. Other sounds that pierce the block of thick sound are Brad Dutz’s subtle marimba lines plus whistles and shimmies from what’s probably Ernesto Diaz-Infante’s prepared acoustic guitar.

Eventually before the theme resolves itself as a close relative to those multi-percussion anthems that Sun Ra’s Arkestra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago encouraged others to emulate in the 1960s and 1970s, saxophone tones move from the nephritic to snaking musette-like, piccolos soar bird-like, trumpets gliss and purr, snare and bass drums go in-and-out of march tempo and it seems that every cymbal in the band is scratched for maximum ear abrasion.

Shorter by almost 20 minutes, suite two begins with some heavy Wagnerian chords played by the massed horns and what sound like strings probably produced by Wayne Peet’s electronic samples. Before the theme is reprised and propelled to the next sonic level by the horns, both guitarists appear to be indulging in behind the bridge flat picking. Suddenly a pastoral section faces off with what could be a distinctive, echoing steel drum tone, which itself morphs into a J. Arthur Rank style gong tone. Soon

The brass shakes and squeals, the woodwinds turn spit and grit and tongue slaps into rhythm and a distinct hunting horn resonance characterizes the euphonium. Following some EST electronic timbres and a kettle drum line, a bleating tenor saxophone and plunger trumpet introduce a bouncing near-military tempo which cements the sections together. Launched on top of Peet’s swelling organ passages and some straightahead rat tat tat drumming from the percussionists, the dissonance seems to reach its screaming finale as honks and vamps alternate back-and-forth. At least, that is, until the entire sonic picture fades into a final reverberating cymbal tone.

Obviously the Ockodektet made up in exertion and effort what it lacked in arrangements and pristine sound, though it would have helped to know which of the woodwind soloists played which instrument. If you can get through the often murky sound here you’ll hear a first-rate band playing the sort of exuberant outside sounds which define Free Jazz. Performing so much more cleanly, Octurn could have pushed its performance to a higher level still if it had adopted some of the dirt and sweat the other band showed off in abundance.

Overall though, the creations both groups successfully answer in different ways how best to write for a large improvising band.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Book: 1. Dawn 2. Interlude (Duet) 3. Morning 4. Interlude (Trio) 5. Noon 6. Interlude (Quartet) 7. Afternoon 8. Dusk 9. Interlude (Sextet) 10. Night 11. Sleep

Personnel: Book: Laurent Blondiau (trumpet; flugelhorn); Geoffroy De Masure (trombone); Patrick Zimmerli (soprano saxophone); Guillame Orti (alto saxophone); Bo Van der Werf (baritone saxophone); Fabian Fiorini (piano); Pierre Van Dormael (electric guitar); Ben Monder (acoustic and electric guitars); Otti Van der Werf and Jean-Luc Lehr (electric bass); Stéphane Galland and Chander Sardjoe (drums)

Track Listing: 17: Suite One: 1. Dirge 2. Clad Like Birds 3. Amplifying Their Parallels 4. Nothing May Be Taken Naturally 5. Even with Diagrams 6. One Absolute Material 7. Figures of this In-Between 8. Figures to be Actualities 9. Figure with Wings Suite Two: 10. Coincidentia Oppositorum 11. Where His Third Eye Could Be 12. Fulfilled by the Reflected Image 13. There is No Profit from Dreams 14. Into That Nothing-Between

Personnel: 17: Dan Clucas, Kris Tiner, Jeff Kaiser (trumpets); Eric Sbar (euphonium and valve trombone); Mark Weaver (tuba); Eric Barber, Vinny Golia, Emily Hay, Lynn Johnston (woodwinds); Ernesto Diaz-Infante (prepared acoustic guitar); G.E. Stinson (electric guitar and electronics); Wayne Peet (organ, theremin and electronics); Jim Connolly and Scott Walton (bass); Billy Mintz and Richie West (drums); Brad Dutz (percussion)