KYLE BRUCKMANN

Wrack
Red Toucan # RT 9323

PAGO LIBRE
Phoenix
Leo Records LR 377

Classically trained players as familiar with improvised as notated music are no longer a novelty in the 21st Century, mostly in Europe and latterly in North America.

However what’s most notable about this, as these two CDs show, is not whether musicians know the idioms but to what end they put that understanding.

WRACK is striking, as woodwind player Kyle Bruckmann steers a quintet of Chicago-based stylists to a color field that takes from both jazz and so-called European Art Music. PHOENIX isn’t as remarkable because the dramatic sound clashes Bruckmann has programmed into his music are replaced by gentler concordance from the cooperative band of one Russian, one Italian, one Austrian and an Irish-born Swiss resident. The four attempt to mesh not only so-called jazz and classical influences, but also site-specific ethnic ones as well.

Besides Bruckmann, an oboist and English hornist who has played in chamber groups as well with improvisers like guitarist Scott Fields and used electronics in the EKG duo, the other two players who help propel WRACK’s seven compositions have a jazz background. Trombonist Jeb Bishop and percussionist Tim Daisy work in various groups with reedist Ken Vandermark among others.

Here, there doesn’t seem to be a track that doesn’t befit from Daisy’s pointed, often broken rhythms that move from marching band cadences to chilly Webernian implications. Bishop too makes the most of the mutes, mouthpiece buzzes and slide positions that jazzmen introduced to the musical gestalt.

On “Gearshifts & Parenthericals”, for instance, his output glides from sonorous, vocalizing noise-making to mid-range grace notes, with a polyphonic sweep created when he, the oboist and violist Jen Clare Paulson sound the same notes in different timbres. Meanwhile, the percussionist supplies pots-and-pans style rattles and some drum stick nerve beats, while bassist Kurt Johnson first appears to using his bow to bang the front of his strings, then chops out counterlines.

Johnson and Daisy function more like a traditional rhythm section behind the main theme on “Extenuating Circumstances”, after which Bruckmann’s ney-like sound outlines a slinky, shimmering secondary theme. As the tempo slows, Paulson showcases glissandi that overlay elongated horn and ‘bone grace notes. Finally, angular percussion work that suggest Xenakis’ writing, and a bass continuum give Bishop the base on which to emphasize different slide positions for maximum color variations.

“Elegy for a Boiled Frog” combines many musical strands. It has an oboe part that appears to have migrated from a Tchaikovsky score, pointed sawing from the strings, buzzy, gutbucket trombone lines that could easily make it in a Classic Jazz context, and a concise rat tat tat from the drummer reminiscent of rock.

Not everything works perfectly however. At 13 plus minutes, mitigating factors make the dissonant, dispirited harmonies of “Mitigating Factors” sound less like a Stravinsky tone poem and more like a mood shift. Clip-clop percussion, string bounces and nearly inaudible horn murmurs don’t help either. Finally Ornette Coleman’s over-recorded “Lonely Woman” is given an inordinately romantic reading that appears to have no improvised part and where the oboe part unfortunately resembles Mitch Miller’s saccharine contribution to BIRD WITH STRINGS.

At least Bruckmann has attempted many out-of-the-ordinary conceptions. Although too many of the compositions have overly apologetic titles, he really should express no regrets. Except for a couple of missteps, WRACK is notable modern music that does precisely what it sets out to do: bridge the gap between written and free sounds.

The situation is somewhat different on the live shows captured on PHOENIX. Perhaps because they were playing for audiences at festivals in Salzburg, Austria and Zürich, Switzerland, the four members of Pago Libre apparently took more of their music’s movement from so-called classical and ethnic sources than improv. As advanced folklore, the sounds are foot tapping and pleasant, but considering the band’s collective pedigrees it seems as if a more impressive fusion could have been attempted.

Dublin-born, Lucerne-based keyboardist John Wolf Brennan is an innovative improviser who is also a member of a Swiss composer’s group and has won awards for his notated creations. Salzburg-born, Vienna resident Tscho Theissing is principal second violinist of the Volksoper Orchestra and member of Roland Neuwirth’s Extremschrammeln. Moscow-born hornist Arkady Shilkloper was featured with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as improvising in a band led by Italian reedist Stefano Maltese. Bassist Daniele Patumi, born in Umbria, Italy has been a member of some of his country’s most advanced improv ensembles: Nexus and trumpeter Pino Minafra’s Sud Ensemble.

One particular frustration is Shilkloper’s four-part “Alpine Trail”. Performed mostly a cappella with throaty rubato pedal tones, despite the descriptive titles, too much of it seems to be showing off the Russian’s technical prowess rather than telling a story.

“Archaeopteryx” and “Turcana”, which also hover in the two-to-three minute mark, are similarly disappointing. The first seems merely to be a demonstration of how the basement timbres of an alperidoo — or European version of a didjeridoo — contrast with bird-like squeals from a violin. The later proves that a strummed bass can indeed sound like a 12-string guitar suffused with Impressionistic lines. The onomatopoeia titled “Tikkettitakkitakk” is little more than double tonguing horn lines, bass slaps, hard syncopation from the piano and some very Euro-sounding scat singing.

Even Wolf Brennan’s “Suonatina” with its dreamy, Bill Evans-style piano harmonies is too tame. It swings politely, but the meshed harmonies from slightly altered violin tones and horn resonation aren’t much more than pretty.

Shilkloper’s “Folk Song” is little more than that. A real foot tapper that molds quick tongued French horn articulation and overlaid piano polyphony into a speedy czardas-type dance, it features Theissing sliding away at the top of his range as if he’d just escaped from a Slavic wedding party. Only at the very end, though, when Patumi creates a bass line so thick that it sounds as if he’s playing an electric instrument and the fiddler plays sloppier and fast enough to vamp, does the tune transcend its origins.

Similarly when Theissing’s “Falsche faehrten” avoids musical melodrama, there are some interesting sounds on display. Somehow the introductory structured horn part morphs in cadences that resemble a whole brass band. After low frequency piano notes —, sometimes in celeste range — alternate with feather-light horn and fiddle timbres, looser tones predominate. The syncopation is such that the band could be playing a freylach.

Fine as well is Wolf Brennan’s “Synopsis”. It subverts romantic piano accompaniment with high-intensity tremolo lines, ringing, strummed bass, sliding fiddle lines and the hornist spiting out notes so quickly that he could be playing a sprightly cornet.

“Phoenix: rising”, the (nearly) title tune, shows how various musical timbres could have been woven elsewhere on the disc. With grating alperidoo lines first displayed on top of bass thumps and prepared piano lines, the piece then opens up. A Spanish tinge from the keys meets biwa-simulating finger picks either from the bassist or violinist, as Shilkloper, now on French horn, blusters out Alpine mountain color. Soon, even the piano takes on koto-like textures, Theissing splays Balkan-like fiddle notes and the piece ends with dampened action string percussive and a few harp-like glissandos.

Had the rest of the CD showed this same interest in combing forms, PHOENIX could have been as good as WRACK. As it is, though, it will probably be of interest to followers of any of these musicians.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Wrack: Rather Dour 2. Elegy for a Boiled Frog 3. Extenuating Circumstances 4. Sins of Omission 5. Mitigating Factors 6. Gearshifts & Parenthericals 7. Lonely Woman

Personnel: Wrack: Jeb Bishop (trombone); Kyle Bruckmann (oboe, English horn); Jen Clare Paulson (viola); Kurt Johnson (bass); Tim Daisy (percussion)

Track Listing: Wrack: Phoenix: 1. Folk song 2. Karelian kink 3. Archaeopteryx 4. Turcana 5. Synopsis 6. Phoenix: rising 7. Falsche faehrten Alpine trail: 8. Calling 9. Walking 10. Dreaming 11. Dancing 12. Suonatina 13. Tikkettitakkitakk

Personnel: Phoenix: Arkady Shilkloper (flugelhorn, French horn, alphorn, alperidoo, voice); Tscho Theissing (violin, voice); John Wolf Brennan (piano, arcopiano, prepared piano, voice); Daniele Patumi (bass, voice)