Spectral Reflections
Leo Records LR 374

Straddling the fine line between what used to be called the avant garde and so-called mainstream music, German reedist Frank Gratkowski lets his quartet shine on six of his own compositions.

Multifaceted, there are enough changes in mood, tempo and time here to satisfy most fanciers of the experimental, yet enough of a swinging pulse (cf. Wynton Marsalis rules) to satisfy the most hidebound neo-con.

Many know Gratkowski, for his work in German pianist Georg

Gräwe’s different groupings and for his membership in American drummer Gerry Hemingway’s new quintet — Hemingway returns the favor here. Also at home in many formal and ad hoc situations, the alto saxophonist and clarinetist put together his own quartet to put a personal stamp on the music — and he’s certainly done so on this outing.

Consider “Homage”, for instance. Possibly meant as a tribute to the history of improvisation, it includes inferences from pre-and-post-modern jazz and eventually a beat to which Marsalis might even groove.

Commencing initially with a sweet sounding coloratura clarinet line, Gratkowski’s translucent phrasing is soon interrupted by chortling plunger work from Dutch trombonist Wolter Wierbos, another Hemingway associate and linchpin of Holland’s ICP Orchestra. Eventually the fluid undertow courtesy of the bass of Dieter Manderscheid, who has worked with the reedman since the early 1990s, joins with the pulsing drums to shift the piece into modified swing time. As the clarinetist bites on his reed to extend his range the screeching tones that result relate more to Louis Armstrong associate Johnny Dodds than modern technicians likes Buddy DeFranco. In sympathy, Wierbos’ gravelly snorts retrogress, blending J.J. Johnson-like machinegun slide rapidity with slurred, rubato changes that recall Dickie Wells or Vic Dickenson. Coda features grace notes from Gratkowski soaring over straight time played by the rhythm duo.

Contrast this with the title and longest tune, which confirm the reedist’s membership in the avant garde. Fricative contrabass clarinet efforts push nephritic growls from subterranean surfaces until they’re squeezed as through a sausage maker into piercing tones. Meanwhile, uninterrupted timbres arise from the trombone, as if individual, electronica-like patterns are being tongued through its mouthpiece. Hemingway contributes an intermittent snare pitter patter and drumstick abrasions on the ride cymbal, while Manderscheid produces menacing, low-pitched horror movie-like tone swabs. As Gratkowski double tongues further down the scale, Wierbos’ counterlines are all tongue tension.

Between these two extremes on the CD, the foursome shows off a variety of styles and techniques, ranging from — on the horn players’ part — blowing colored air through their body tubes, and in Gratkowski’s case from both sax and clarinet — trilling whistles and tongue slaps as well as legato tones. Wierbos contributes intermittent bell blasts, spittle-accelerated Bronx cheers, chromatic plunger work, and, at the conclusion of one composition, what could be a military bugle call. Manderscheid quietly bows when needed and scrapes double stops at other times; while Hemingway’s intermittent drum pressure from straight time to widely offbeat — in both senses of the word — plus cymbal crackles and sizzles, shows why he’s in demand as a leader and sideman in both North America and Europe.

Gratkowski is in a similar situation. Nevertheless the achievements on this CD prove that he must find time for a leadership role more often.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Blonk 2. Homage 3. Loom 4. Fenster 5. Annäherungen III 6. Spectral Reflections

Personnel: Wolter Wierbos (trombone); Frank Gratkowski (alto saxophone, clarinet and contrabass clarinet); Dieter Manderscheid (bass); Gerry Hemingway (drums)