FRANK GRATKOWSKI

Artikulationen II
2ND Floor CD 009

MICHAEL MARCUS
Speakin’ Out
Drimala DR 02-347-04

Despite the proliferation of solo saxophone sessions over the past few years, creating a CD that is both intellectually challenging for the player and sufficiently captivating for the listener is very difficult. Woodwinds weren’t designed to assume the role people take for granted with the piano, guitar or violin and it usually takes every ounce of skill for reed masters such as Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker and John Butcher to formulate their memorable solo discs.

So how do these new attempts by German reedist Frank Gratkowski and American multi-instrumentalist Michael Marcus fare? Both get high marks for diversity — Gratkowski plays alto sax, clarinet and bass clarinet on different tracks of his disc, while Marcus divides his 10 tracks among work on B flat clarinet, bass clarinet, saxello, straight alto saxophone and straight tenor saxophone. Sadly that’s where the similarity ends. An old hands at this type of thing, with an earlier solo disc in his past, Gratkowski appears to have evolved a creative playing philosophy succinctly expressed on the five improvisations recorded in concert either in Ann Arbor, Mich. or Cologne, Germany.

Marcus deserves an “A” for effort all right, but his freshman effort, recorded in a New York studio on two different days in 2001 and 2002, finds him relying too frequently on too many familiar note combinations and sonic outcomes. In truth, his CD is only about 60% effective because his cogitation and follow-through is superior on certain instruments than others.

Tonal variations are Gratkowski’s stock in trade, however. On “A2d”, for instance, he not only showcases duck-like tongue slaps in the foreground, but also manages to create waddling waterfowl percussion behind it. Functioning both as the soloist and the accompanist, his mallard style lower-pitched claxon calls give way to a rhapsodic theme, which is then interrupted by jagged, high-pitched feline screeches and what could be the sounds of tearing paper.

Regular alto sax cadences alternate with pure-toned vocalization at the same pitch, so much so that he could be the Slam Stewart of the saxophone, or an imaginary pop singer backed up by reed obbligatos, commenting on his every tone. With the same rhythmic cohesion both sounds work their way up and down the scale, one note at a time. Before he winds up by repeating and grasping grace notes, there’s a small section where it appears as if he’d like to play “Night In Tunisia”.

Bass clarinet feature “A2c”, quickly substitutes Eric Dolphy-style soaring whoops and bottom range vibratos for velvety false fingering and the suggestions of second-line reed percussion that begin the piece. Introducing a continuous hiss of colored noise, the combo sounds of articulated key pops, fingernail flick percussion, wiggles and squeaks is surmounted by a lip pursing raspberry-blowing coda.

Spetrofluctuation characterizes the final track, another alto feature. With its bugle-like reverberating beginning and later contorted trumpet-like tones, it confirms the brass band history of the saxophone. More terrifying in retelling than hearing, there’s a happy polka-like tone running through it, until the end when sustained squeaks give way to an assortment of throat-clearing honks of different lengths until the piece collapses into a prolonged dog-whistle coda.

Flattement or finger vibrato, slide slipping, construction of miniscule strains in the middle of other phrases, absolute silences, cool jazz monochromic reed lines, doits, buzzing mouth suction and sparrow-like chirps are used for effect elsewhere on the disc. Least satisfying though is his on showcase on regular clarinet, which is usually more impressive. Here despite a collection of trills and key pops there doesn’t seem to be much differentiation between his approach in the coloratura or the chalumeau range.

Gratkowski’s clarinet may be his least distinctive horn on his session, while Marcus has a more serious problem. Described as someone who has recorded on all members of the saxophone, shorn of backing, his most noteworthy work here comes on the highest-pitched woodwinds — the saxello and clarinet — and on his one bass clarinet excursion. Otherwise, whereas there’s nothing technically deficient in his handling of the other reeds, he seems intent on working in the same note pattern on each and every track.

Tenor saxophone seems to convince him to unveil R&B style breaks that would probably be recognized by Flip Phillips and Illinois Jacquet, who were honking their curved tenors back in the 1940s. But screeching toots or brawny ballad playing, which on one tune resembles “Taps” of all things, doesn’t make really show much pre-cogitation. Neither do his two alto sax forays. One seems to be searching among exploding screeches and whorls of sound, while the other, even with chirping, high-register, split tone vibrations and what seem to be a few pet Dolphy-like phrases appears to be more tentative than experimental.

However, saxello encourages him to try out extended multiphonics and circular breathing so the piece swings, even though that repeated motif reappears again. Bass clarinet brings out some deeper tones and key pops-on one hand and register chirps and smears on the other. Sounding like he’s duetting with himself he creates a buoyant foot-tapper.

Best of all is his clarinet work, which on one tune he dedicates to Jimmy Giuffre, yet is performed with a sharper pitch than the other reedist prefers. Using a simple and woody tone, and in the final track Dixieland echoes in the coloratura range, Marcus’ forte seems to be legato note patterns. This interpretation works most successfully at the finale, where his tone and note placement makes a proper bridge back to the sound of the first track.

Gratkowski’s session, which can only be found through his Web site at www.gratkowski.com should impress folks interested in how to properly approach a solo session. Marcus’s CD, which is also only available at www.drimala.com may have more value for those who have followed his 20-year career. The rest of us may figure that while a good try, for a future second solo outing he should limit the number of tracks released and not try to cram all his concepts and woodwinds onto the same disc.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Artikulationen: 1. A2a 2. A2b 3. A2c 4. A2d 5. A2e

Personnel: Artikulationen: Frank Gratkowski (alto sax, clarinet*, bass clarinet+)

Track Listing: Speakin’: 1. New Earth (for Jimmy Giuffre)* 2. Zone Tones+ 3. Journey in Cardamon^ 4. Beyond Our Horizon* 5. Speakin’ Out+ 6. Zebra Finch~ 7. Cornfeed% 8. Saxitivity^ 9. Quasar+ 10. Next Earth*

Personnel: Speakin’: Michael Marcus (straight alto saxophone^, straight tenor saxophone+, saxello~, B flat clarinet*, bass clarinet%)