The Silence Behind Each Cry - Suite for Urs Voerkel
Intakt CD 077

City of Angles
Innova 571

Each a singular visions of one composer/performer — one American, one Swiss — these two CDs showcase his specific strategies in writing an extended piece for a mid-sized band of nine to 11 pieces.

Unfortunately, while the desire and craftsmanship are praiseworthy, the finished products come up short. In the tough, modern musical climate neither CITY OF ANGLES nor THE SILENCE BEHIND EACH CRY, exhibits enough originality or technical skill to be praised for any reason beyond making the old college try.

Pianist Andrew Durkin, mainman behind The Industrial Jazz Group (IJG) has come up with a portrait of Los Angeles that could have been one of the best jazz-rock discs of 1973. But 30 years later many of his jokes, genre mixing and stratagems are old hat, having been run into the ground by various Frank Zappa bands and other ensembles that came after him.

Saxophonist Omri Ziegele had the praiseworthy idea of fashioning a threnody for Zürich -based pianist Urs Voerkel, who died of a kidney ailment in 1999. Besides his association with German drummer Paul Lovens and Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer, Voerkel also organized a concert/ rehearsal space that evolved into the city’s Workshop for Improvised Music (WIM), now home base for Ziegele’s Billiger Bauer band. One would hope, however, that the pianist’s vision encompassed more experimentation than the straightforward charts the saxophonist has organized here. Not helping any are what Ziegele characterizes as his “Badlyrics” (sic) to a couple of tunes, weakened still more by his frantic, histrionic delivery.

Starting on the West Coast, the 11-piece IJG’s sardonic portrait of the city of angels may be great fun live. It certainly calls on enough different musical styles to make its point.

But almost confirming the old point that the left coast limps behind the east in concept, doesn’t the band — and Durkin — realize that genre shifting has long been currency of the realm for any POMO band worth its John Zorn CDs? His snarky titles are no wittier than similar jokey statements from the like of alto saxophonist Tim Berne and the ICP’s Misha Mengelberg. Plus his two self-indulgent spoken word interludes relate back to self-conscious Mothers of Invention humor.

More seriously, does Durkin, who is an academic and film composer as well as composing, arranging, producing and even taking the inside photos for this project, understand that some so-called noise isn’t a joke? The few interludes that clock at around the one-minute mark here seem to be no more than non-melodic space fillers. A clutch of improvisers in Europe, Japan and even in Los Angeles and San Francisco might, on the other hand, hear — and play — these abstract noises as their own music.

On the positive side, everything is well played and professional. In fact there are a couple of tracks where the band’s bouncing mixture of themes and styles suggests Willem Breuker’s Kollektief. There’s the foot-tapping cartoon-like sound of a “Losing Proposition”, for instance, which alternates the theme from a Laurel and Hardy film with snatches of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It also contains some of the best Dolphyesque alto saxophone playing from Evan Francis, who has studied with saxophonist Jeff Clayton.

Similarly, the strong baritone saxophone lead from Cory Wright, who also works with percussionist Adam Rudolph, in unison with Eldad Tarmu’s vibes, adds a different fillip to echoes of Breuker and Zappa. Between the baritone smears however, are echoes of movie musical soundtracks and the suspicion that some parts are double tracked to be more operatic sounding. However the soaring cadences of mezzo soprano Lauri Golenhersh are featured on those few spots where a real voice is needed.

Tarmu’s Red Norvo-style vibes — a sound that fused Cool Jazz with George Shearing’s polite bop manifestations — are featured on other pieces such as “Void When Detached”. Although the expression takes place on top of the Modern-Jazz-Quartet-meets-Benny- Goodman-melody that is also interrupted by some bass clarinet burps from Wright. Throughout Daniel Glass’s drums are never less than swinging, but also never more than polite. Isn’t that the adjective that doomed West Coast jazz?

Glass was a member of Swing revival band the Royal Crow Review and worked with rockabilly guitarist Robert Gordon. But his bebop cymbal sounds mixes well with hearty chording from the electric bass of Aaron Kohen, an LA music teacher. Vibes are there as well, and once you work your way through its echoes of Paul Shaffer Late Show orchestral music and The Mothers’ “Idiot Bastard Son”, the theme does work up to a satisfying crescendo and grand finale.

Those Zappa vibes, to use a 1960s word, appear again on “Full-on Freak”, at nearly seven minutes the longest track on the disc. Described as “an attempt at psychedelic Mingusian crime jazz” by Durkin, he’s certainly honest. However Charles Mingus himself would probably have had little truck with Noah Phillips’ pseudo surf guitar and drumming that sounds more like Sandy Nelson than Dannie Richmond. Is an emulation of the bass man’s “Haitian Fight Song” improved by more pseudo-churchy riffs? Plus once you’re heard that Francis can play like Jackie McLean and trumpeter Scott Steen like Bill Hardman are extended riffs necessary?

Perhaps the basic overall weakness here can be noted when Durkin writes that “Mwahaha” is “fairly spooky, but not nearly as spooky as it thinks it is”. Sage advice: it isn’t spooky in a jazz/improv sense at all. Instead Francis’ cool flute lead and what could be a cha-cha [!] rhythm suggests other fluted pop-jazz standards like Herbie Mann’s “Memphis Underground” and Moe Koffman’s “Swinging Shepherd Blues”.

With his sense of the ridiculous and orchestral smarts, Durkin is obviously aiming for something more than standard West Coast pop-jazz music. He also appears to have to talent to do much more. But perhaps exposure to more committed musicians outside of his home bailiwick and a rethink of his core compositional impulses would produce something better next time out.

If the IJG’s weaknesses are showcased with a touch of burlesque, then Billiger Bauer (BB)’s come from what can only be termed Ziegele’s megalomania. Thank goodness vocalist Goldenhersh is part of the other band. She can sing what Durkin needs. Here the “badlyrics” barely survive the Swiss saxist’s vocal delivery; his suite almost doesn’t.

Take “Echoes of R.C.” where Ziegele batters a few lines about love from American Robert Creeley’s poetry into his own rhythmic sense and mountaintop yodeling. On his own, backed by electric Jan Schlegel and drummer, bugler [sic] Dieter Ulrich from BB, the saxman has performed as Noisy Minority. But when other musicians are in the majority as here, it seems that Ziegele’s theatricality turns even noisier.

As the background segues from horn-driven hard bop to Schlegel approximating Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”, the saxman aurally struts on the CD’s centrestage. More impressive are pianist Gabriela Friedli doing her version of an off-kilter tango, trombonist Hans Anliker expressing himself with some grounded plunger work, and alto saxophonist Peter Landis, who actually worked with Voerkel, and who breathes out some lyrical, yet gutsy lines. Ending the piece with tutti horns and drums, a couple of off-key sax toots makes up the coda. That ending is the kind of sonic overkill that seems to characterize Ziegele’s vision of the band.

In all honesty, whether in burlesque or by design [!], BB’s music, at least on this requiem, seems no more far out, to use a 1960s work IJG might like, than say Torontonian Rob McConnell’s swing Tentet might play. In fact, on “Misspelled Fortune,” at nearly 17 minutes, the CD’s longest track, the non-traditional band influences seem to be more Blood, Sweat & Tears than Breuker’s Kollektief. With Anliker as a mellow J.J. Johnson, Landis in a dulcet Jackie McLean type mode — including a few reed squeaks — and double drummers Marco Käppeli and Ulrich creating Latin rhythms on their kits, this sounds like regular big band radio music, not the type you would expect to hear at WIM. Bugle sounds don’t add much more than novelty effects either.

That compositions runs right into “Who’s been gone and what is left”, the only time where the radio station engineering appears to have muffled any of the instruments — in this case Christoph Gantert’s trumpet. With more of a rock-blues push to it, the tune includes some powerful horn vamps, snaky boogie rhythms from the piano, walking bass and the drummers’ heavy rim shots and cymbal pulses. As the theme appears and reappears, and ignoring a drum solo that sounds straight out of the Buddy Rich school of flash, the only melancholy expressed here is in Herbert Kramis’ arco bass lines.

For his contributions to Swiss improvised music, Urs Voerkel deserved to be honored. But you wonder if he would have suggested that the BB’s try a few more rehearsals before they exposed Ziegele’s heartfelt sentiments to the recording laser. Like Durkin, Ziegele surely has raw talent. But he should relax a bit more. Dizzy Gillespie once said that the most important part of jazz was learning what not to play. Perhaps the saxman could ponder that aphorism for a while.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: City: 1. Theme from City of Angles 2. The Most Adaptable of All Weed Species 3. Interlude in Krupa 4. Void When Detached 5. Tribute to Chrome 6. Pince Nez 7. Tuxedo Trouble 8. Now That’s What I Call Music 9. Mwahaha 10. Full-on Freak 11. Losing Proposition 12. Los Feelies 13. Dear Sir or Madam 14. Anger Management Classes

Personnel: City: Scott Steen (trumpet); Garrett Smith (trombone); Evan Francis (alto saxophone and flute); Cory Wright (soprano, tenor and baritone saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet); Andrew Durkin (piano, harpsichord, glockenspiel, synthesizers, broken acoustic guitar, bicycle wheel); Noah Phillips (electric guitar snippets); Aaron Kohen (acoustic and electric bass); Eldad Tarmu (vibraphone, peanut butter); Joe Tepperman (theremin snippets); Daniel Glass (drums); Lauri Goldenhersh (mezzo soprano)

Track Listing: Silence: 1. The silence behind each cry 2. Misspelled Fortune 3.Who’s been gone and what is left 4. Echoes of R.C.

Personnel: Silence: Christoph Gantert (trumpet); Hans Anliker (trombone); Omri Ziegele (soprano and alto saxophone, bad lyrics); Peter Landis (alto and tenor saxophones); Gabriela Friedli (piano); Herbert Kramis (bass); Jan Schlegel (electric bass); Marco Käppeli (drums); Dieter Ulrich (drums, bugle)