MARK WHITECAGE

Fractured Standards & Fairy Tales: Live on tour in Tours Vol. 1
Acoustics ELE 409CD

MARK WHITECAGE
Fractured Again: Live on tour in Tours Vol. 2
Acoustics ELE 412CD

Jingoistic Yank jazz fans may not believe this, but it still seems that the music and musicians get more appreciation in Europe than North America.

Take multi-reedman Mark Whitecage, for instance. Equally proficient on soprano and alto saxophone and clarinet, The Jersey City, N.J.-resident got his union card long ago, at age 12, in 1949 and since then has played with a whole variety of musicians. While his closest associations have been with musical explorers such as German vibist Gunter Hampel and his Galaxie Dream Band, singer Jeanne Lee and clarinetist Perry Robinson, blues and bebop aren’t that far beneath the surface when he improvises. He also spent several years with bassist Saheb Sarbib’s big band.

However the enthusiastic crowd for the two-night gig in Tours, France captured on these discs assuredly didn’t wait for (American) magazine poll results or the blessings of (American) neo-cons before loudly applauding his art. Whitecage elicits similar responses in Portugal, Germany and Switzerland. Now that the reedman is hooked up with a few touring groups — most notably this one, filled out by bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen; plus the Nu Band with bassist Joe Fonda, drummer Lou Grassi and trumpeter Roy Campbell — perhaps local jazzbos will be able to give him the same type of response.

Lacking live exposure, the 141-odd minutes of these two discs can whet the appetite for a performance in the flesh. Consisting of Whitecage compositions, with a couple of exceptions, they show how well the different parts of the trio, which has been together since 1996, mesh. In demand by other soloists like saxophonist Joe McPhee and Ivo Perelman, Duval and Rosen have become the Paul Chambers and Art Taylor of the outside scene, symbols of professionalism and distinction on anyone’s date.

These 1999 live gigs offer another attribute as well. Duval and Whitecage extend their techniques with electronics. Apparent as early as Volume 1’s title track, the loops give the nearly 21-minute piece a resplendent otherworldly ambiance that ripples through Whitecage’s clarinet sounds and the clip-clop of Rosen’s percussion. As Duval’s modulated steady bass work prefaces each section with shifting tones, the reedman, on alto sax produces quasi-bop honks and pliable emphasized lines, sometimes through electronics duetting with himself on his other reed. Snatches of half-remembered themes appear and disappear just as quickly. As reed tones aurally glisten in the background, Whitecage finishes the tune liberally quoting from Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly”.

If boppers like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, whose “Round Midnight” gets a fairly standard reading at the end of Volume 2, influenced a teenage Whitecage, then so, later on, did rule breakers like Albert Ayler, who is celebrated twice on “Suite Albert” and “French Medley”. The later, taken at a jaunty lope, features the rhythm section in full bop mode, with the saxman using split tones and smears to encompass nursery rhyme rhythms, double-timing Kansas City style blues beats and a reading of Ayler’s theme song “Ghosts”, which is a close cousin to “La Marseilles”.

Conversely, the later, despite its title seems to encompass Monk as well as Ayler. With Rosen rolling out ratamacues in a martial tempo, banging away on his ride cymbals or subtly manipulating finger cymbals and Duval stroking his strings to advance the beat while he — or is it Whitecage? — mutters and mumbles through the electronic set-up, the saxman squeezes out emphasized reed contortions that at times sound like Ayler’s “Mothers” and “Vibrations” and other times Monk’s “Misterioso” and “Played Twice”. Ingenuity from the three arises from this pastiche which flows smoothly as one composition.

Whitecage’s squeaky, gnarly clarinet tone gets a workout on Volume 2’s “Weeping Willow” — an allusion to “Willow Weep for Me” perhaps? That occurs at the end of the tune where his legato clarinet line dissolves into cadenzas that migrate up and down the scale. Elsewhere here and on the almost 18-minute “Halfwit”, electronics make it appear as if Whitecage has strapped a Varitone attachment onto his sax. Still it does allow him to play hide-and-seek with different tones. While all this is going on, Duval highlights a shifting rondo of bass resonances. Finally, the tune ends with allusions to “Surrey With A Fringe On Top” and “Lover Man”.

“Halfwit” is one of the few times the band suffers from poor mic placement, with Rosen’s drum kit too far forward. Notwithstanding, electronics allow Duval to approximate a string section, bowing in violin register at one point and fully operational as a walking bassist other places. Overblowing and squealing, Whitecage seems to have internalized the cry that characterized Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, while Rosen works out in crashing, elastic time Sunny Murray mode. Duval’s double stopping keeps the tempo on an even keel. Midway through the piece the saxist downshifts from squeals to balladic and quotes from “Summertime”.

Neither CD is perfect, with the first volume further weakened by a last track that’s a nearly nine-minute Rosen drum solo, which seems to be there to quiet the crowd and reflect how enthused it was.

But until — we hope not if — Whitecage comes to your town in some guise, drop an e-mail to rozmark@bellatlantic.net to get these CDs. This will instill an understanding of his style in you and make you more erudite when you see him. You may be able to discuss technique and inspiration intelligently, while the rest of the audience is totally won over by the performance.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Vol. 1: 1. Fractured Standards & Fairy Tales 2. Suite Albert 3. Morbet Mein Beck 4. French Medley 5. Encore

Track Listing: Vol. 2: 1. Prelude to a Fifth 2. Halfwit 3. Can do Kind of Guy 4. Weeping Willow 5. Five O’Clock Follies/Bass Stick Medley 6. ‘Round Midnight

Personnel: Vols. 1 & 2: Mark Whitecage (alto saxophones, clarinet and electronics); Dominic Duval (bass and electronics); Jay Rosen (drums and percussion)