MIRABASSI/BOLTRO/FERRIS

(((Air)))
Sketch SKE 333036

HANNES ENZLBERGER
Tango 1-8
Between the lines btl 030

Melodic, swinging and airy sounds don’t necessarily have to be lightweight — musicians as different as Paul Desmond, Ahmad Jamal Ruby Braff and even Miles Davis demonstrated that at different times in their careers.

Yet many fans still think that if their ears aren’t assaulted with discord and volume, the musicians can’t be that serious. Dreaded, so-called Smooth Jazz has given added impetus to this argument. And, to be truthful, jazzers have to be twice as sensitive in their playing to not only avoid bombast, but also to make sure they don’t lull their audience into dreamland with quiet, polite melodies.

Two younger players who try to be sensitive yet serious are represented on these trio CDs. Pianist Giovanni Mirabassi, who was born in Pérouse, Italy, but has lived in Paris since 1992, uses the timbres attainable from trumpet and trombone plus his piano to create a light but tough musical weave — though there are more than a few times he drops a stitch. Viennese bassist Hannes Enzlberger got his inspiration for his discs from an uncommon and subversive source: Carla Bley’s “Reactionary Tango”. Restrained and atmospheric, his eight tangos and seven other solo, duo and trio tracks try to add humor to and strip sentimentality from the Argentinean-based melodies.

Luckily the bassist has the squeeze box talents of Otto Lechner along to help him with this task. Born in a small town in Lower Austria, Lechner has been playing accordion since the age of four, and, as he terms it, not only listened to pop, jazz and classical music on the radio, but “also discovered the space between the stations.”

With a sound that can be drum-like as percussive, reedy as a massive harmonica, expansive as a church organ with many foot pedals and somehow able to suggest distorted electronics, Lechner brings the needed dissonance to these tunes.

Probably the best example of this appears on linked tracks, “Tango 3” and “Solo 3” — Enzlberger is nothing but literal in his titles. Emphasizing slurred glisses and dynamic, double-timed overtones, the accordionist adds another dimension to the first tune by prudently striking the sides of his instrument as if he was lighting a match, then whacking it like a mini-percussion set. This encourages the bassist to vary his tempo from the steady walk of a jazzman to the plucks of a C&W bull fiddler. Even flugelhornist Thomas Berghammer, whose playing is otherwise well modulated and melodic, indulges in some flutter tonguing and bell squeaks. Solo, Lechner almost proves that he almost doesn’t need the others’ contributions. Quaking tempo shifts from his bellows and sliding syncopation from the other hand create contrasting counter melodies that could come from two different players.

Elsewhere Lechner prods his squeeze box to sound out tones like a telegraph sending Morse code or produce repeated, warbling oscillations that usually demand preparations or computers to appear. Sometimes he hums in unison with a particular passage, creating a tart burlesque of the accordion’s usual affinity with French café music.

If he pulls back as he does on sections of “Tango 2” and especially “Tango 6”, you half expect Edith Piaf to start warbling at the end of certain theme statements; you can certainly imagine Rudolph Valentino tangoing across the floor. But the danceable rhythms are broken up by Lechner’s vocalizing and faux percussion to such an extent that the composer often also begins scratching out abrasive effects on his four strings, leaving flugelhornist Berghammer as the one “sweet” instrumentalist.

Besides his extensive chamber group association with Enzlberger the flugelhornist has also recorded as part of the more avant-leaning Orchester 33 1/3, with more abrasive types like woodwind-player/electronics experimenter Christof Kurzmann. Yet the times he introduces a guttural growl, whinnies a timbre or wallows in a purposely-sibilant note can be noted singly. Tone purity is his preference and that propensity come perilously close to upsetting the pretty/potency balance here.

AIR suffers from protracted airiness to an even greater extent, since Turin-born trumpeter and flugelhornist Flavio Boltro’s muted, mellow style intensifies the romantic tendencies of the leader/composer. Boltro, who was a member of the French Orchestre National du Jazz from 1994 and 1997 also played trumpet in pianist Michel Petrucciani’s group. Not only does Mirabassi sometimes write film music, but one of his accompanist gigs was backing Chet Baker, the epitome of wan romanticism. He also tips his hand here by including a song by French chansonnier Georges Brassens.

Like Lechner on the other disc, this session has American expatiate trombonist Glenn Ferris in the house to cut through the treacle. Initially Los Angeles-based, Ferris spent three years with trumpeter Don Ellis’ band and gigged with Frank Zappa. In France he has worked with everyone from avant-garde saxist Michel Portal to folkloric reedist Louis Sclavis and African soulster Manu Dibango. Obviously this isn’t a man whose playing is rife with sentimentality.

Still mellow if he wants to be, Ferris comes out with low-pitched modified swing tones on “Des Jours Meilleurs”, sounding as if butter could melt on his bell. But it’s a far cry from the almost childishly light tones that Boltro quickly double times, and comes from a much different place than Mirabassi’s Bill Evans-inflected pianism.

On “Les Oiseaux de Passage”, the Brassens tune, Ferris’ ripened grace notes resemble those that often appeared from the horn of Lawrence Brown with Duke Ellington. But here they have a certain tartness when compared to the other brassman’s flowing lines that sound as if they’re coming through Miles Davis’ Harmon-muted bell.

Here, and on “Behind the White Door”, Boltro’s solos seem to float rather than swing. Mirabassi’s steady touch and dynamics goes past Evans into 19th century Impressionism, while even Ferris widens his embouchure to tongue out gentle melodies. When he combines then splits away from Boltro’s burnished tone later on though, the trombonist gives the piece some needed movement.

Ferris follows a similar strategy on “Jean-Paul chez les Anges”. Here the passing tones from the pianist almost sound Bach-like, then turn simple and single note as the trumpeter’s Harmon mute hovers into aural view again. However Ferris’ answering theme multiplies the harmony and encourages the brass tones to mix, match, follow, swerve and snake around one another. Spurred by a velvety croak from the boneman, the pianist loses his placid composure for a period and heads into modal McCoy Tyner territory.

Pleasant without being insulting, AIR and TANGO 1-8 are certainly worth your time if harsh and hard aren’t your favorite adjectives. But with more humor and tricks on show, the Austrian session has the definite edge.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Air: 1. Lili Est Là 2. Memento Mores 3. Bobo’s Theme 4. Mata Hari 5. Un Monde de Fous 6. Jean-Paul chez les Anges 7. Adele & Papillon 8. Behind the White Door 9. Les Oiseaux de Passage 10. Des Jours Meilleurs 11. Just Avant La Guerre

Personnel: Air: Flavio Boltro (trumpet and flugelhorn); Glenn Ferris (trombone); Giovanni Mirabassi (piano)

Track Listing: Tango: 1. Tango 1 2. Solo 1 3. Tango 2 4 Solo 2 5. Tango 3 6. Solo 3 7. Tango 4 8. Duo 1 9. Tango 5 10. Duo 1 11. Tango 6 12. Duo 3 13. Tango 7 14. Trio 15. Tango 8

Personnel: Tango: Thomas Berghammer (flugelhorn); Otto Lechner (accordion); Hannes Enzlberger (bass)