HUGH RAGIN

Sound Pictures For Solo Trumpet
Hopscotch HOP 13

URA
i treni inerti
Creative Sources CS 006 CD

We’ve come a long way from the days of Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis, any fan of improvised trumpet music will think, after hearing these two sessions that end up on the farthest fringes of brassdom.

But appearances — and sounds — can be deceiving. Despite their similar positions away from the mainstream, the musicians on the CDs are coming from different places, and not just geographically.

Houston-born, Colorado-based Hugh Ragin, is a consummate trumpet technician, who has a Masters degree in classical trumpet performance. Besides teaching, he has also collaborated with musicians including reedists David Murray, Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell and recorded CDs ranging from bebop to out-and-out avant-garde. The 15 — not 16 as the cover sleeve notes — performances here showcase a variety of strategies for solo trumpet from short, rhythmic exercises to what could be called humanistic overdubbing.

URA’s members — two trumpeters and an accordionist — are firmly in the reductionist universe. During the course of the trio’s four improvisations many would be hard pressed to hear any of the instruments’ distinctive timbres. Referencing so-called classical and electronic music as well as improv, texture, space and silence is more significant than melody, tone or narrative exposition.

One trumpeter, London-based Matt Davis, is British and someone who works in similar silence-supporting groups like Broken Consort with prepared harpist Rhodri Davies. The other, Ruth Barberán, is Catalan, and a member of the IBA, an independent collective committed to the improvisation arts. Accordionist Alfredo Costa Monteiro was born in Portugal but has lived in Barcelona since 1992. A visual artist as well as a tabletop guitarist, he also has a duo with Spanish feedback mixing board stylist Ferran Fages. There are times, in fact that the extended buzzing tones and elongated silences on I TRENTI INERTI sound as if they could be created from electronics.

Most instructive is the sound on “Aérea”, at slightly more than 19 minutes the CD’s longest track. As a steady, percussive rhythm develops, perhaps advanced by striking the accordion’s valves, the two trumpeters create a uniform commodious tone, as if they’re blowing through their bells without touching the valves. While the output varies from nearly translucent oxygen clouds to understated snarls, what could be a drum stick blow is heard, once then twice. Could Monteiro be attacking his instrument or is he using a nutcracker in an inventive way?

Soon it appears as if one trumpeter is emphasizing a single tone, rolling spittle through the bell, while the other produces cheeping shrills as if he (she?) has unscrewed the mouthpiece and is sounding it alone. After one scrapes along the horn’s metallic body, a mechanized, higher-pitched drone stops and starts. Bisected by the brassfolks’ breathes and rumbles, the sound finally reconstitutes itself as a squeeze box, dissolves into silence, then gets so loud it takes on air raid siren dimensions. Following this lead the trumpet tones turn grainier as well, allowing the listener to actually hear the sounds of pure air. Miniscule squeals arise from one trumpet, percussive rat tat tats from the other, along with what could be items placed and pulled along the accordion’s metal reeds.

“Osso” includes reed sounds that more properly could be attributed to a woodwind, while tongue flutters, tongue slaps, bee-buzzing timbres and the perforation of air currents against brass finish arise from the trumpeters. Eventually scrapes get louder and more expansive before disappearing.

Continuing in this showcase of stops, starts and nearly inaudible silences, among the squeezed and air fluttering on “Level” are rattles and a definite hiccup — origin unknown. An extended whistle tears through the proceedings along with what could be the drone of a mosquito in a tube. What could be the shaking of dice upon the accordion keys contributes, while a trumpeter seems to expend more time scraping and manipulating the horn’s finish then expelling air through the bell. A close parallel to this would be to consider the microtonal explorations of trumpeters like American Greg Kelly and German Axel Dörner and multiply them by two.

Back in the land of jazz, Ragin pays tribute to one influence, Miles Davis, on “Ballad for Miles”; one colleague, with “Braxton Dues”; and one teacher/associate with Wadada Leo Smith’s “Rhythm Unit #1 to #9”. Each of these tunes emphasizes a different facet of extended trumpet technique.

The most interesting pieces, however, are two of the longest, which touch on some reductionist techniques. “Rhythm Unit #5”, for instance, centres around constantly repeated grace notes that fluctuate up the scale. Growls and peeps arise from within the bell followed by a melody that moves from allegro to adagio, finally expanding from chromatic trills into loud, sharp, pinpointed whole notes. “Rhythm Unit #4”, on the other hand, features a wavering tone, staccato triple tonguing and broken high notes, which — perhaps following Ragin’s legit training — continue in a straight line rather than turning chaotic.

“Braxton Dues” actually sounds like Braxton’s improvising, albeit transferred onto a trumpet, utilizing a collection of grace notes expelled chromatically in standard time. The Davis tribute replicates Miles’ echoing Harmon mute sounds with extra accompaniment from an overdubbed trumpet choir made up of Ragin clones that is evidently playing earlier versions of what Ragin is improvising upfront. All this does sound a little folksier than what urbanite Davis would try though. “Parisian Sunrise” is a more flavorsome ballad, put together chromatically and adagio. A feeling of melancholy pervades the composition as the trumpeter modulates down the scale, using many pre-modern held notes. Even the reverberating end uses natural trumpet tones.

Exhibiting studio technology, “For The Joy of Space & Music” is alternately gimmicky and impressive. At nearly 10½-minutes, it goes on a bit too long. With sonorities moving in and out from what appear to be five overdubbed trumpets, each grace note is picked up by the next cloned instrumentalist until the burnish is scraped out of the horn’s finish. Some tones are direct, others distant, and for a time it sounds as if the tune is a film, projected in-and-out of focus. While there’s more invertible counterpoint than the regular kind on tap and Ragin uses mouthpiece kisses, heraldic tones and deep breaths to his advantage here — and whinnying tones, growls and shrill suspensions elsewhere — his playing would never be confused with either of the trumpeters from URA. Instead it’s another way to expand the definition of that familiar brass instrument.

That’s why those most absorbed by the work on these CDs will be brass players above all.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: treni: 1. Osso 2. Ara 3. Level 4. Aérea

Personnel: treni: Ruth Barberán, Matt Davis (trumpets); Alfredo Costa Monteiro (accordion)

Track Listing: Sound: 1. For The Joy of Space & Music 2. Parisian Sunrise 3. Rhythm Unit #1 4. Rhythm Unit #2 5. Rhythm Unit #3 6. Rhythm Unit #4 7. Rhythm Unit #5 8. Rhythm Unit #6 9. Rhythm Unit #7 2 10. Rhythm Unit #8 11. Rhythm Unit #9 12. Ballad for Miles 13. Perpetual Motion 14. Braxton Dues 15. Emergency Exit

Personnel: Sound: Hugh Ragin (trumpet)