LUCAS NIGGLI’S ZOOM

Rough Ride
Intakt CD 082

LUCAS NIGGLI’S BIG ZOOM
Big Ball
Intakt CD 083

Oftentimes a band can operate with the same personnel for years and always come up with splendid music, but sometimes familiarity breeds complacency, so that the added fillip of new voices raises everyone’s creativity level.

So it is with these CDs by Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli. ROUGH RIDE captures three sets of live performances by the drummer’s regular Zoom trio, filled out by Germans, Nils Wogram on trombone and melodica and guitarist Philipp Schaufelberger. Far superior is BIG BALL, done only a few days after one of the trio gigs, but with the three pumped up into Big Zoom with the addition of Swiss clarinetist Claudio Puntin and Austrian-born, New York resident, bassist Peter Herbert. Serendipitously or intentionally everything come together for more than 68 minutes of exceptional improv.

Zoom, which has been together since 1999, is described by leader and composer Niggli as midway between “a jazz-combo, a chamber music-ensemble and a rock-band”. Unfortunately the rather thin sound on the first disc seems to amplify the conventional tendencies of all three men. At times you can almost anticipate what the response of anyone will be to another’s riffs.

Wogram, who on recent releases has confirmed his status as a trombonist to watch, fares best here. Moving from Lawrence Brown-like legato to J.J. Johnson-style staccato, he’s as apt to tongue triplets as to screw a cup mute into his bell for a solo statement. Schaufelberger is more chameleon-like. Throughout the seven compositions, he seems unable to make up his mind whether he’s a ProgRocker or a mainstream jazzer. He tries both the identities on for size.

On “Superblues” — which is neither — he uses extended rock forms in his solos, relying on sliding tremolos and straight chording. Niggli employs his bass drum and bell tree to maintain the beat, and as the tempo gets faster, the trombonist demonstrates that he can tongue and slide as quickly as the guitarist can pick. Earlier, on the first tune, Wogram moves from gritty plunger work to a stance that sounds half Mariachi and half J.J., backed up with busy, Latinesque rim shots and clave explorations from the drummer. Meanwhile, as the tempo shifts, Schaufelberger turns out a spinning, scratching effort replete with pedal action effects that also seem to hang among the styles of Tal Farlow, Bill Frisell and Canned Heat’s Henry Vestine.

“Squeeze me To” and other spots demonstrates Wogram’s melodica prowess, which when played polyphonically, sounds like an undulating accordion. Jazz accordionist Art Van Damme may have recorded with guitarist Joe Pass, but Schaufelberger’s concept here is more Rock music-like and Niggli’s drumming varies from light accompaniment to a steady shuffle rhythm.

Finally there’s “Rough Ride II”, where the tempo seems to change more frequently than the price of gold on the Zürich stock exchange. Verging on heavy metal improv, Niggli pounds out a beat, somewhat relieved by miscellaneous percussion and offside flams, while Schaufelberger sometimes plays as if he’s auditioning for Yes, loosening his strings and manipulating his knob set for more distortion. Wogram’s muted rubato passage is in a mellow mid-range, but he offers up some muddy vibrations to stretch the tone.

Performances, not to mention tempos, pick up considerably on the second disc, as the three are joined by Herbert, who has worked for leaders as different as drummer Bobby Previte and pianist Marc Copeland, and Puntin, who plays in a number of German big bands including Klaus König’s Orchestra.

Perhaps the additional musicians with new style and ideas took some of the pressure off the original Zoom trio. Indeed Schaufelberger archly reveals some relaxed, Herb Ellis-like comping behind Puntin’s limpid, legato Benny Goodman-style lines on “Nirvana”. Double-tonguing into the lower registers, the stickman joins with the trombonist to pump out some up-and-down harmonies. With the tempo quickening aided by the guitarist’s Mod Era style fretting, the reedman turns to guinea pig-like squeaks, and Wogram introduces wah wahs that deepen and get more diffuse probably because he’s using a cup mute. As the horns musically march forward in lockstep, Herbert tugs away at his strings, Niggli unleashes paradiddles and Schaufelberger has a fleet guitar solo.

Driven by what sounds like the tick-tock rhythm of maracas, the title tune finds the guitarist again veering between mainstream jazz and pseudo-rock; the trombonist manipulating his slide to a gymnast’s positions until the notes seems to echo and writhe; and the clarinetist mating Klezmer melancholy and slurpy Swing suggestions. Meanwhile “Phoenix” explodes with discordant shards of disjointed blats from Wogram’s plunger mute, wiggling clarinet tones from Puntin, bowed bass from Herbert, and an extended high-pitched B.B. King-style lead guitar riff from Schaufelberger. As Niggli targets his bass drum and positions his ride cymbal, the reedist plays a feathery counterline which then melds with the darker ‘bone tones. As the rhythm intensifies with hi-hat tones and guitar fretting, Puntin glisses down the scale to mid-range, following this with an adagio reed coda.

Except for a section where Wogram’s muted trombone tone literally sounds as like a laugh from behind his hands, the most memorable part of the “Drei kleine Tänze” suite is the final section, “Usato (ma non troppo)”. In it, Niggli approximates a marching band tempo, as Wogram’s trombone growls like a bear newly awakening from sleep and Puntin pumps out a high-pitched, andante folk dance rhythms. Elongated and liquid, his tempo is rushed, so that he almost turns the beat around in his excitement.

Then there’s “Eine kleine bop musik”, which would be memorable for its title alone. Luckily it has a lot more going for it with Wogram alternately tooting and vocalizing recalling Jay & Kai one minute and Vic Dickenson the next. Picking high on the neck, Schaufelberger could be Grant Green, Puntin arrives like a sluicing Buddy DeFranco, and Herbert and Wogram could be Paul Chambers and Art Taylor respectively. Traveling along, the players trade fours at one point then construct an ending with theme repetitions conclude with a final trombone blast.

Strength in number or confidence from assistance, Big Zoom outshines the Zoom trio and suggests that if you pick it up, you too will have a BIG BALL.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Rough: 1. Rough ride I 2. Superblues 3. Rough ride II 4. Fratzensack 5. Brain ballad 6. Squeeze me too 7. A free cadence

Personnel: Rough: Nils Wogram (trombone, melodica); Philipp Schaufelberger (guitar); Lucas Niggli (drums, percussion)

Track Listing: Ball: 1. Phoenix 2. Nirvana 3. Big ball Drei kleine Tänze: 4. Early bird 5. The juggler 6. Usato (ma non troppo) 7. Eine kleine bop musik 8. Space waltz

Personnel: Ball: Nils Wogram (trombone); Claudio Puntin (clarinets); Philipp Schaufelberger (guitar); Peter Herbert (bass); Lucas Niggli (drums, percussion)