Shades of the Muse
CIMP #286


Matching a horn with a chordal instrument, bass and drums has long been an accepted jazz strategy. But as Free Jazz has muted into Free Music, fresh front lines have replaced the horn-and-guitar or horn-and-piano set up. Case in point these two CDs, one British, and one American, both of which feature a cellist upfront.

Firmly in the new tradition that welcomes new sounds, SHADES OF THE MUSE, the Yank disc is the fourth recent session lead by multi-reedist Avram Fefer. Here he’s partnered by cellist Tomas Ulrich plus Ken Filiano on bass and Jay Rosen on drums, all experienced in the karma of exploratory playing. Across the pond, SHAKEN is the debut disc for trumpeter Roland Ramanan, a full-time educator as well as a member of the London Improvisers Orchestra (LIO). His crew of veterans and fellow LIO members is made up of Marcio Mattos on cello and electronics, Simon H. Fell on bass and percussionist Mark Sanders.

Especially when it comes to the understated virtuosity exhibited by the trap men, both sessions are impressive examples of current group improvisation. Fefer’s crew is slightly more palatable though, since its shorter CD has fewer arid spots than Ramanan’s virgin effort.

Unlike some tyros the trumpeter doesn’t try to pack everything he knows into the disc, changing chameleon-like from track to track. Distinctively part of the BritImprov subset, SHAKEN is above all a group effort, with the leader careful to give full scope to the others’ talents. Improvising in different combinations, the disc probably could have been tightened by dropping the one track that features wooden flutes throughout.

One track that’s welcome for its inclusion, though, is literally called “Worth Remembering”. Highlighting a meeting of comparable musical minds, the piece starts with expertly vocalized brassy smears and stresses that meld with solid back up from the plucked cello. Purring brass trills then set up the momentum that welcomes the bass and drums playing an advanced version of jazz time. Soon buzzed rubato output from Ramanan meets long-lined string accompaniment that moves from pizz to arco and back again in split seconds. Finally after he searches his embouchure for le note juste, the brassman ends with high-in-the-valves note scraping mirrored by scratched bird-like whistles from the cello. The triumph here is that it’s often difficult to tell which note arises from the string set and which from the brass bell.

Other all-hands-on-deck pieces don’t reach those heights, as they’re allowed to go on far too long. “Before”, for instance, clocks in at nearly 11 minutes, with part of the space given over to Ramanan’s Amazonian flute intonation, a let down after you hear his brassy, chromatic trumpet lines that are seconded by wiggling drum bits and bell pealing plus legato cello slashes. When the trumpeter introduces half-squealing breaks, cello sutures become more diffuse and dissonant. Like Mikes Davis in the mid-1970s Ramanan holds onto his grace notes as the accompanying undertow from the others becomes wider and more diffuse — Fell drones out the continuum as electronics apparently extend Mattos’ cello tone.

Experienced in group situations such as pianist Chris Burn’s Ensemble and drummer Eddie Prévost’s quartet, the cellist easily adapts to the unpretentious, jazz-like beat from Sanders, speedily triple-stopping and sounding out short, melodic fills. The trumpeter responds in kind, letting himself go by arching out a brazen, high-pitched solo that includes a screaming, descending pitchslide. There’s no egg shell walking here.

Here and on “The that’s that”, where Ramanan’s instructions direct the number of notes played in a set sequence and how many times the sequence is repeated. Sanders, who has backed up soloists like reedists John Butcher and Evan Parker, shows that he can create polyrhythms as easily from the sides and rims of his kit as the tops. He also colors the proceedings by popping sudden shattering tones from tiny unmatched cymbals, not unlike what Rosen does on the other CD.

On this and other pieces, Ramanan offers up matchless open horned tones, while the others construct irregular pulses around him. Elsewhere his idea pool includes fluttering rubato lines, strangled cries, mouthpiece French kisses and extended Harmon muted tones doubled with arco bass color Of all the musicians, Fell, whose writing includes extended compositions and who has played with most of the major BritImprov stylists, seems the least assertive.

You wouldn’t say that about Filiano on Fefer’s CD. But at the same time SHADES OF THE MUSE is also a group effort, with each man contributing to the overall sound picture. The bassist, whose longtime association has been with California multi-reedist Vinny Golia, easily adapts himself to Fefer’s four horns, providing a jazz-like pulse when needed and more obtuse timbres where they fit. More of a melodist than Ramanan, the reedman has the knack of composing pieces whose themes stay in your head for a while after you’re heard them. He does so in a variety of styles as well, without compromising his playing.

“Gates of Baghdad”, for example, an improvised piece with group notation, relies on the natural mournfulness produced by the arco cello and bass to suggest uncertainty, with the downcast mood commented upon with an irregular pulse and short bell peals from Rosen. As Fefer’s reed intermittently squeals and squawks turn to spetrofluctuation, ghost note vibrations and body tube trills, the percussionist does some of his best work on the CD, with cymbal crashes aimed with the precision of smart bombs and short, swift flams and ruffs. Working with other advanced woodwind players like Joe McPhee and Ivo Perelman has given Rosen a second sense in how to complement such reed flurries.

Ulrich, whose background includes time with Perelman, as well as the likes of drummer Kevin Norton and frequent Rosen partner, bassist Dominic Duval, works in perfect counterpoint to the horn man. By the end his complementary lines ease Fefer’s trills and double tonguing into one intense, elongated note.

“Shepp in Wolves’ Clothing”, honoring saxophonist/educator Archie Shepp, with whom Fefer recorded in Paris, is a buoyant tune linked as much to Shepp’s appreciation of Classic Jazz as his New Thing advances. A nearly 14-minute foot tapper carried on the walking bass and drum’s shuffle rhythm, it features a polyphonic tenor line and blue notes from the cello. Sounding more like Rahsaan Roland Kirk then Shepp at one point, the reedist solos on both his saxophones at once, creating a growly semi-atonal tone from one and a strained, vibrated split tone buzz from the other. With the tempo halved for a sliding bass solo backed by tingles from bells and unselected cymbals, the head is reprised just before the end with the piece going out with a final sax honk.

Cello and reeds voiced together means that a couple of the other tunes resemble the sort of bouncy West Coast pieces turned out in the mid-1950s by drummer Chico Hamilton’s band, the first to feature a cello in the front line. “Oblique Departures” is most notable for Filiano’s solo in a traditional Paul Chambers mode, while the balladic “Love Crept In (Again)” showcases Fefer’s smooth, liquid tone on the clarinet.

Finally Fefer’s versatility comes to the fore on “Brother Ibrahim”, a reminiscence of his trip to Morocco. Mixing Arabic and Eastern European influences, it exhibits a pinched reed tone that could come from a musette that expands to squealing and triple tonguing. It’s as if Booker Ervin had traveled to the Middle East. While Rosen plays a fast shuffle and Filiano navigates the beat, the strings appear to move from oud-like bowed lines to jaunty, freylach-like melodies. Ulrich skims across the strings with a high-pitched whine reminiscent of what Billy Bang can do with a fiddle, and his variations prepare the way for a reprise of the theme.

A fine effort, Fefer is definitely fashioning an unshakable identity. Meanwhile Ramanan’s CD is strong enough to suggest that just a little tweaking and shaping is needed in his concept to turn out as memorable a disc as the other.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Shaken: 1. Before 2. The next 3. Showers 4. Break 5. A kiss 6. Promised 7. The that’s that 8. Of a handshake 9. Worth remembering 10. Forgotten

Personnel: Shaken: Roland Ramanan (trumpet, wooden flutes); Marcio Mattos (cello and electronics); Simon H. Fell (bass); Mark Sanders (percussion)

Track Listing: Shades: 1. Shepp in Wolves’ Clothing 2. Love Crept In (Again) 3. Gates of Baghdad 4. Oblique Departures 5. Brother Ibrahim 6. BC Reverie 7. Sacred Passage (for Syma)

Personnel: Shades: Avram Fefer (tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinet); Tomas Ulrich (cello); Ken Filiano (bass); Jay Rosen (drums)