Red Toucan RT 9320

A reunion of sorts, this CD not only matches woodwind player Frank Gratkowski with pianist Georg Graewe, with whom he has had a decade-long collaboration, but features his second ever concert with American bassist John Lindberg, with whom Graewe first played with 15 years ago.

The resulting more than 57 minutes of restrained chamber jazz recorded last year at Cologne’s Loft by these two Germans and one Yank, succinctly demonstrates how complimentary stylists can fit together like ball-and-socket despite differences of geography and time.

Restrained doesn’t mean subdued, artless or unskilled though. All three musicians have many years of experience to contribute. Furthermore, while the breakdown may be Old World-2, New World-1, both Germans have enough American experience — especially in bands with drummer Gerry Hemingway and among Chicago musicians — that natural boundaries don’t figure here at all.

Still, to float a cliché, Gratkowski and Graewe seem most concerned with technical and compositional competence here, whereas Lindberg, especially during those times when his bull fiddle takes on the percussion function, adds an uninterrupted version of what musicians call New York energy to the proceedings. After all, the bassist, best known as one-third of The String Trio of New York, has also spent time playing opposite such unrestrained sax blowers as Jimmy Lyons and Larry Ochs.

So when Gratkowski begins investigating odd nooks and crannies of his clarinet by overblowing and extending his vibrato, Lindberg manages to shadow him every step of the way. Often drumming on his bass strings for emphasis or creating protracted rumble and thumps in the lower register, the bassist sounds as if he’s utilizing the sort of unselected percussion favored by European improvisers like Paul Lovens and Fritz Hauser. Elsewhere, as Lindberg solos in the highest register of his string set, it’s the reedman’s contrabass clarinet that provides the basso ostinato underpinning the music

Interestingly enough, Gratkowski’s improvising on alto is often much smoother than what he plays on the legit woodwinds. There are also times though, that his split tones mesh with Lindberg’s arco work to such an extent, that you’re not sure to which instrument any note should be ascribed.

Free here of the scholastic fussiness that has sometimes infected his work in the past, Graewe more than holds his own with either hand and on either side of the keyboard. However there are points such as the mid-tempo “Arrears III” — at nearly 15 minutes the longest track — where Graewe’s single-note pianisms and Gratkowski’s mid-register clarinet tone operate at such a languid pace that the result seems about to sink into contemporary chamber music. Contrast that with the brisk mid-section of “Arrears I” where each of the musicians introduce dissonant elements — reed squeaks from Gratkowski, cello-like sawing from Lindberg and a bit of rubato freedom from Graewe — without losing the (instant) compositional thread. With the trio members combining to bring the music back to the theme, the pianist’s asides demonstrate that time spent in the company of speed demons like American clarinetist Ken Vandermark and Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger have been beneficiary.

Admirers of any of these musicians will no doubt appreciate this session, as will many others. But don’t look to it for exaggerated virtuosity. It’s a trio record above all.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Arrears I 2. Arrears II 3. Arrears III 4. Arrears IV 5. Arrears V

Personnel: Frank Gratkowski (alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet); Georg Graewe (piano); John Lindberg (bass)