Furniture Music
Okka Disk OD 12046

Berlin Reeds
Absinth Records 001

Parker - Haslam - Edwards

Ambiance Magnétiques AM 112 CD

Woodwind players galore in solo or duo settings are featured on these CDs, which not only replicate the stratagems reedists evolve to cope with such concentrated playing, but confirm the divisions between Continental and Anglo-Saxon interpreters.

On show are seven reed blowers: one American, one Italian, two Britons, two Germans and three Swiss. The horns used include almost all the members of the saxophone family: soprano, alto, tenor baritone and bass; plus clarinet, bass clarinet and Hungarian tarogato. Oh, and on two tracks, a British bassist makes an appearance.

Taken together, the results seem to show that the English speakers, no matter how experimental, are still trying for a consistent musical statement, while the continental Europeans are moving into the realm of pure sound.

You can’t chalk this difference up to age either. Chicago’s Ken Vandermark, whose almost-66½ minute, 18-track solo session using four different horns is the most audacious disc, is around the same age as a couple of the players on BERLIN REEDS and younger than the others on that CD and ASYMÉTRIES, whose playing is ostensibly further-out than his. Moreover British saxophonist Evan Parker, whose solo experiments began around the time some of the junior woodwind players here had their lips on a pacifier, rather than a reed, creates one of the most concordant extended solos of all.

FURNITURE MUSIC is the first solo CD from Vandermark, who has already successfully forged a group identity with his own bands, and been praised for his contributions in groups ranging from Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tenet to duos with saxmen such as Joe McPhee and Mars Williams. Here he solos on clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone, and that may be part of the difficulty. Very few musicians are inventive on four different horns, and exposing himself alone magnifies Vandermark’s shortcomings on each. Even someone like Sonny Stitt, who was an exceptional blower on alto, tenor and baritone saxophone never attempted solo work on any of his axes.

On tenor, his most familiar horn, Vandermark has his elliptical sounds down pat, but seems to do little more than chirp altissimo multiphonics and push out swollen notes in pedal point from deep within his horn’s body. Even his version of the country blues is cut off before it reaches critical mass.

He’s a bit better off on clarinet and bass clarinet, the other reeds that have been in his arsenal for a while. On clarinet, his most impressive moments come on “Melodica” and “Leaves”. The former, dedicated to McPhee, finds him reverberating whole notes in the unruffled contralto register. Melodic enough, it could probably celebrate the other reedist more appropriately, though, if the resulting sound was faster and livelier.

The later tune, honoring filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, claims to be crosscutting images and sounds from two of the Italian director’s films. Here nose breaths, chirping split tones, tongue pressure and the hiss of colored air are what Vandermark hears as approximations of cinematic techniques. Yet rather than reflecting Antonioni’s hyper realism, the end result is more like that of a Hollywood-oriented American Indie flick, at least when compared to the outright radical aural cinema of Kai Fagaschinski on the BERLIN REEDS set.

Reverberations within the body tube and tongue slapping percussion characterize Vandermark’s work on bass clarinet. On “Indeterminate Action”, for instance — tellingly dedicated to composer John Cage — he appears to be applying any extended techniques he may have neglected on other tracks, including altissimo screeches, semi-snorts, irregular vibratos, internal growls in false registers and propelled ghost notes.

His most impressive achievement — coincidentally the longest track on the CD — is “Color Fields to Darkness”. Here he manages to produce a ghostly doppelgänger reedist, with one producing strident squeals and the other a foghorn tone that deepens and elongates as he plays. All this is followed by tongue slaps and twittering vibratos.

These two pieces are more exploratory than the first two tracks on BERLIN REEDS by Rudi Mahall. The Nürnberg, Germany-born bass clarinetist, who has worked with musicians such as trumpeter Axel Dörner and pianist Aki Takase, performs what could be termed standard EuroImprov on these tracks dedicated to his guinea pig [!]. Unruffled and legato, the first piece is mostly concerned with circular trills and bass echoes, not expanding until the very end into freak high-pitched squeaks, reed buzzes and a few microscopically examined wild-boar snorts. With echoing tone and reverberating bass tones the second is more of the same.

Back in Chicago, Vandermark seems most comfortable with the baritone, his newest horn. On the bouncy “Lines”, it’s almost as if he’s one-quarter of the Four Brothers, creating a chugging, foot-tapping melodic sound, almost like 1950s Jimmy Giuffre. Other tunes show off arching split tones, glissandos that give him sympathetic echoes within horn’s body tube and phrases held so long that they break apart into reed tweets and low-pitched tongue slaps. Built around unvarying lower level multiphonics, “(brüllt)”, again manages to push more than one timbre from his bell, and these join and split apart amoebae-like before turning to unrelentless honks.

He’s honorable in his efforts. But by dedicating all his improvisation, Vandermark has set himself up for sometimes unflattering comparisons to other woodwind players. Furthermore, by packing 18 tunes into 73 minutes, he may have bitten off more than he can chew, which can be quite painful with a reed instrument.

The Chicagoan’s shortcomings are put into bolder relief when compared to the solo and duo creations of Britons Parker on soprano and tenor saxophones and George Haslam on baritone saxophone and tarogato — a sort of Hungarian wooden soprano saxophone — on PARKER-EDWARDS-HASLAM. Bassist John Edwards is the odd man out here.

Largely self-taught, Haslam has worked extensively in Eastern Europe and South America and in many different types of music. He brings a melodious tinge to his solo playing. On baritone his dynamic sense is paramount with the lines mostly smooth and legato. Coming across like a hipper Gerry Mulligan, his rhythm always swings on an even keel. Of course, Mulligan may have been shocked by Haslam’s sometimes irregular vibrato, rhythmic tongue slaps and an ending which moves up from traditional baritone bottom-feeding tones to a bit of overblowing, side slipping and split tones.

Uniquely Magyar, the tarogato has an elastic tone that seems to add a resonant buzz to every note played, More experimental with it than his larger horn, Haslam applies spetrofluctuation, circular breathing and double timing to shake loose new avenues for his improvisations.

Wooden soprano and Vandermark’s clarinet output has to bow to the solo methodology developed and perfected by Parker and exhibited on the CD, however. Here overblowing and circular breathing allow him to slur out two very different tones, one in mid-range and the other high-pitched. Soon, with glissandos, he’s producing continuous squeak and sympathetic overtones, then smearing out a bagpipe-style irregular vibratos with high-pitched chirps on top. Like a conveyer belt of notes, he plays on and on, appearing to be triple tonguing so that there are echoing vibrations for every previous echoing vibration, and ending with a coda of one long smeared tone. At more than three times the length of any Vandermark track, his solo is also more synchronous, pointed and in context, easily related to the ongoing improv tradition.

Those who wonder where reed exploration can go post-Parker, are directed to BERLIN REEDS, made up of four, 3-inch CDs packaged in an oversized cardboard sleeve. In terms of higher-pitched woodwinds, Italian Alessandro Bosetti on soprano saxophone and feedback and German clarinetist Fagaschinski may have definite answers to that question.

Bosetti, 30, who has worked with fellow soprano saxophone excavators like France’s Michel Doneda and Boston’s Bhob Rainey, and been part of the band Phosphor with aural explorers like trumpeter Dörner and inside piano specialist Andrea Neumann, states that he’s “developed an instrumental language that incorporates extended techniques, noises, and a strong influence from electronic music”. There are times on his more than 18-minute solo track here, in fact, that the electro-acoustic suggestions seem to involve more than feedback.

Beginning with the rotating injection of pure air moving through the horn’s body tube, skids and stops then imply electronic static. Almost continuous, his tone soon gets noticeably thinner and more diffuse, taking on the oscillation of an electric guitar. With lips formed into a Bronx cheer and watery spit tones predominating, his metallic timbre almost reaches dog whistle territory. Interrupted only for the odd breath, you can hear undulating wind sounds and the clinks of keys being depressed. Soon even these give way to reed hisses, reed kisses and growling breaths amplified by key manipulation. It’s a performance that sounds more like more sibilant larynx than sax licks.

Fagaschinski, 29, a German clarinetist who has also played with Dörner and in a duo with computer manipulator Christof Kurzmann, is as radical in his presentation as his politics. On “I’m afraid of Americans too”, he’s the most reductionist of any of the extant soloists, and ironically, one whose work is reminiscent of American Rainey’s. He’s also someone who will send you scrambling for your headphones, since his almost 15½-minute solo alternates up-to-60-second pauses with tiny breaths and tongue noises plus echoing whistles. Most of the time he appears to be wheezing colored air through the instrument’s body, with even that oxygen sometimes dissolving into stillness. Fascinating in his audacity, in comparison, it’s as if he and Vandermark are playing two completely different woodwinds, rather than the same instrument.

Almost the same thing could be said about “Weggebracht!”, bass clarinetist Mahall’s final solo piece. Firmly placing himself in the ranks of Teutonic body tube travelers he screeches out extended, mountain-top high, resonating tones that then liquefy into singular, tart note spits and gritty, reed-biting double tones. All this takes place in the altissimo range and ends with a final high-pitched honk.

Zürich-born, Berlin-resident Gregor Hotz is an organizer in that city’s music scene as well as a bass saxophonist. Someone who has also played with Dörner, Mahall, Neumann and fellow Swiss reedist Hans Koch, his sax sound on “Friendly Fire” is as far removed from the mainstream and semi-mainstream conceptions of Vandermark and Haslam as their sax conception is from the 1920s and 1930s work of jazz’s first — and for a time only — bass saxophonist, Adrian Rollini.

Offering up a chamber music recital of prolonged exhalation, Hotz’s strategy is to start from a certain point and suspire until no more air can be expelled. He keeps repeating that trope as his vibrato gets more intense. Inserting respiratory pauses of up to 60 seconds, at times he sounds out deep-sea tones that resemble tuba blats. Avoiding that traditional low tone most of the time, though, he also bests the Anglo Saxons by frequently creating echoing, dissonant timbres and multi-tones. Coda is a heavy, snorting vibrato of few notes that transforms the sax into a percussive drone machine.

Doubling the pleasure and fun, ASYMÉTRIES joins tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Koch with Swiss countryman Bertrand Denzler on tenor saxophone for a four track, less-than-38-minute, reed recital. Koch who is best known for his ongoing trio with cellist Martin Schütz and drummer Fredy Studer, and Denzler, who is part of the otherwise all-French HUBBUB band, have been working as a duo since 1999.

EuroImprovisers par excellence, between their squeaks, whistles, warbles, small animal peeps, flattement, reed-biting, rumbles, irregular vibrations and Bronx cheer approximations, the two are often able to create three — or more — distinct sounds from only two horns.

Most descriptive of their talents, the almost 17-minute first track finds them off-handedly — or perhaps just using the thumb rest — showcasing reed prestidigitation without Anglo-Saxon braggadocio. Building on percussive key pops, understated tongue slaps and shakes, they create sounds that aurally mirror ghostly wind whistles, radio signals, the shuffling of cards and oscillating sine waves. Individual instrument identification is put aside, although among the tiny nursing piglet squeals, it seems that one man is expelling a watery underlying tone, while the other builds up multiple breaths that reconstitute themselves into percussion-like licks. Only on a couple of other tracks can you distinguish the woody tone of the bass clarinet, its identity is more subsumed than in Mahall’s or Vandermark’s improvisations.

Elsewhere, bassist John Edwards, who has also duetted with reedists like Paul Dunmall and John Butcher, is on hand to second Haslam on baritone and Parker on both soprano and tenor on their sax face off on the Slam disc. Unlike the Swiss, the Englishmen limit themselves to straight staccato lines with irregular vibrations, tossing phrases and notes back-and-forth. Chirping, Parker flaunts his circular breathing as Haslam’s baritone pedal point provides the undercurrent. At the same time the soprano saxist makes sure that he relates as much to Edwards’ string tugging as the baritone’s gritty slurs. Later on, the baritonist slides out some idiosyncratic constructions and Parker providing the pepping ostinato that reflects them. With Edwards’ bass bottom suggesting a third saxophone, the two real reedists turn to flutter tonguing and slurs, with Haslam more ornamental in his exhalation. Finally the two confront one another for a robust miasma of pliant reed timbres, circling around and uniting for a medley of honks, in congruent but contrasted high pitches. Unlike Koch and Denzler there’s never any doubt as to which sax is playing or who is playing it.

Every one of these sessions is valuable for reed fanciers, although some experiments are more accomplished than others. The duos confirm their talents, the Berlin collection highlights new reed researchers and Vandermark once he learns to edit himself, shows on his first effort that he can probably soon expose more elevated solo work.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Furniture: 1. Resistance [for Evan Parker]* 2. Horizontal Weight [for Peter Brötzmann]# 3. So Is This [for Michael Snow]+ 4. Lines [for Lennie Tristano]& 5. Immediate Action [for Jackson Pollock]& 6. Panels [for Piet Mondrian and Erik Satie]*7. Color Fields to Darkness [for Mark Rothko]+ 8. Would a Proud Man Rather Break Than Bend [for Mississippi Fred MacDowell]& 9. Beck and Fall [for Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman]# 10. Melodica [for Joe McPhee]*11. Indeterminate Action [for John Cage]+ 12. Leaves [for Michelangelo Antonioni]*13. (brüllt) after Jaap Blonk # Live: 14. Panels [live]15. Immediate Action [live]16. Horizontal Weight [live]17. Color Fields to Darkness [live]18. Would a Proud Man Rather Break Than Bend [live]

Personnel: Furniture: Ken Vandermark (clarinet*, bass clarinet+, tenor saxophone&, baritone saxophone#)

Track Listing: Berlin: CD 1: 1. Unplayed saxophone CD 2: 1. Friendly fire CD 3: 1. I’m afraid of Americans too 2. No body can leave its skin CD 4: 1. Mein meerschweinchen kann das nicht 2. Mein meerschweinchen will das nicht 3. Weggebracht!

Personnel: Berlin: CD 1: Alessandro Bosetti (soprano saxophone, feedback); CD 2: Gregor Hotz (bass saxophone); CD 3: Kai Fagaschinski (clarinet); CD 4: Rudi Mahall (bass clarinet)

Track Listing: Parker: 1. Solo for baritone saxophone 2. Solo for tarogato 3. Solo for soprano saxophone 4. Solo for double bass 5. Duet for saxophone and bass 6. Trio for two saxophones and bass

Personnel: Parker: Evan Parker (soprano and tenor saxophones); George Haslam (baritone saxophone, tarogato); John Edwards (bass)

Track Listing: Asymétries: 1. Asymétries 1 2. Asymétries 2 3. Asymétries 3 4. Asymétries 4

Personnel: Asymétries: Bertrand Denzler (tenor saxophone); Hans Koch (soprano saxophone, bass clarinet)