URSEL SCHLICHT-STEVE SWELL 4TET

Poets of the Now
CIMP #272

GARCIA/GEBBIA/WOGRAM
Pronto!
Intakt CD 076

Often awkward and unwieldy to manipulate, the slide trombone attracts fewer sonic explorers than, say, the trumpet or the saxophone. But as these two discs show, committed musicians can still produce convincing improvisations within those limitations.

American Steve Swell (b. 1954) and German Nils Wogram (b. 1972) are two ‘bone men establishing a place for themselves in the expanding jazz/improv traditions. Yet each CD offers a different take on that tradition.

Simplistically, with its piano, bass and drums backing, you could describe Swell’s disc as more “American”, even though leadership of his 4tet is shared with German pianist Ursel Schlicht; while Wogram’s, which finds him improvising alongside an Italian saxophonist and French sampler player is more distinctively “European”. But both call equally upon robust Yank techniques and Continental inventiveness.

After all, it was the German trombonist who studied at New York’s New School, before taking more expected gigs with Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli’s Zoom, Russian-American pianist Simon Nabatov’s bands and Martin Fondse’s Dutch Octet. Moreover, Sicilian alto saxophonist Gianni Gebbia has a history of collaboration with experimental players from the Bay area. Sampler player Xavier Garcia from Lyon, with a background in theatre, dance and New Music, may not fit this equation. But who says the French and Americans get along? Just act George Bush and Jacques Chirac.

Schlicht, who recorded the CD shortly after gaining her green card as an “alien of extraordinary ability”, has moved back and forth to and from the U.S. for years, bringing her experience playing focused EuroImprov with German guitar torturer Han Tammen to situations with Swell among others. Meanwhile trombonist Swell, who often works with drummer Lou Grassi, has also recorded with experimental Portuguese musicians and other Europeans.

As an added fillip, bassist Tom Abbs, whose associations include multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore, brought his tuba to the session, and drummer Geoff Mann, who often works with the bassist as a Paul Chambers-Jimmy Cobb combination in downtown New York, brought along his cornet — an indirect homage to British improviser John Steven, perhaps?

It’s true that Swell’s plunger work references earlier times, but isn’t it European who pride themselves on remembering their history? Take his tune “Bluesy”, for instance. From its beginning the trombonist slurs dirty, plunger tones all over the place, a lot more Kid Ory than J. C. Higginbotham. Schlicht comes across with some light-fingered, right-handed bop-blues à la Junior Mance or Red Garland and Mann produces breezy swing like a modern day Jo Jones, emphasizing his hi-hat. Growling, Swell exits, reprises the theme first andante, then presto.

Other pre-modern wah wahs vie with off-kilter piano sweeps and intentionally (?) muffled drumbeats and shaking chains or a tambourine outline on “Han Bennink”, which Swell named for the eccentric Dutch drummer. Later on, though the trombonist’s pitch appears particularly elevated as he mixes it up with the unvarying, shofar-like tuba blasts from Abbs.

In contrast, the pianist’s “12/2”, named for its 12:22 length, is a mixture of primitive and modern. Working out pedal pressure high notes with Abbs’ string topping a Henry Grimes-like attack, Swell enters with a Peter Gunn theme-style rhythm that resolves itself in a wiggling beboppy line. More intense than elsewhere, Swell’s Jungle sound splits into smart bomb shards as Schlicht hammers away at the keys, and the bass and drums double the tempo. Reprising the theme in unison the trombonist and pianist leave room for Mann’s drum break filled with rim shots and press rolls.

Other pieces encompass march tempo drum tattoos; near static bone drones or double tongued hearty legato lines; breakaways from the pianist that recall romantic Bill Evans at times and powerful McCoy Tyner modal playing elsewhere; and even a point where the massed brass sounds as if it’s reading “Maiden Voyage” charts. POETS OF THE WORLD is definitely POMO. It’s also an excellent confirmation of the talents of these musicians.

PRONTO! doesn’t come off as well, not so much because of the horns, but because there’s really not enough rhythmic heft from Garcia. Furthermore, while the other band explores only seven tunes, Garcia, Gebbia and Wogram have their way with 13 (!), some of which clock in at little more than one minute and are more a compendium of effects than full statements.

“Bavardage” or “blabbering” in French translation, is one of the two shorties with any real life. Here you find all three players grunting, spitting and gurgling as they produce offbeat instrumental toots, slides and whistles. At one point Garcia sounds like he’s spinning an orchestral LP backwards. The other, “Clonebone”, is unsurprisingly an example of how the sampler can take Wogram’s wide-vibrato metallic tone and multiple it in such a way that his triplets become sextuplets and then mutate and split some more. Both are fun but not exactly notable.

Conversely, “Un peu de doucer dans un monde de brutes” [“A little softness in a world of brutality”] is much more interesting. As the sopranino saxophone slowly advances the fragile melody then turns to circular breathing, Garcia is able to create mewling samples that at one point resemble flute tones and at another vibrate like the metal bars of a vibraharp.

“Street of Shit” [sic], on the other hand, features Wogram’s ghostly plunger tones melding with muted rodent-like squeaks from Gebbia. Garcia replicates the output of both horns, then add a synthetic drone that sounds like the manufactured cries, labored breathing and whispered panting from the couplings in a Triple XXX soundtrack. Maybe the title is best left unexplained.

Finally there’s “A soulful point of view, “ the longest track, at a little more than 11½ minutes. With echoes of the era where Cool jazz met sophisticated, East Coast arrangements, Gebbia, as straightahead as you’ll ever hear him, playing largo, comes up with purring grace notes and is soulful enough to reference “Harlem Nocturne”. Wogram, expels mellow chromatic tones in a burnished, lazy J.J. Johnson-like tone and Garcia’s sampler makes like an entire orchestral string section. Later as the hornmen play higher and are more abstract in their work — think Frank Rosolino and Art Pepper as experimentalists — the trombonist sustains two alternating pedal tones for an extended period as the saxophonist squeals his way into an outside Neapolitan boatman’s tune.

Besides that, there are enough reed tongue slaps and tongue flutters from the sax, , growls and air forced through valves from the trombone and sampled bells, drones, sci-fi clamor and even sitar/tabla imitations from the sampler to show the trio’s versatility. The challenges of such experimentation is that some attempts do fall flat.

Gebbia and Wogram have recorded solo sets and both seems to thrive in situations with heartier rhythmic input. Although they hold their own here, it may be that fewer, longer tunes would have provided a better display for their capabilities.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Poets: 1. Poets of the Now 2. 12/2 3. Han Bennink 4. Blusey 5. Barbara Ellen 6. Ursel Surveys the Scene 7. Orbicularis Oris

Personnel: Poets: Steve Swell (trombone); Ursel Schlicht (piano); Tom Abbs (bass, tuba); Geoff Mann (drums, cornet)

Track Listing: Pronto!: 1. Vite, vite, vite 2. Cantus Firmus 3. Sikanex 4. Un peu de doucer dans un monde de brutes 5. Child out 6. Clonebone 7. Marxch 8. Street of Shit 9. Vucciria 10. Eglise Pygmée 11. A soulful point of view 12. Bavardage 13. Morning Raga

Personnel: Pronto!: Nils Wogram (trombone); Gianni Gebbia (sopranino and alto saxophones); Xavier Garcia (sampler)