JOSH ABRAMS

Cipher
Delmark DG-546

PAT O’KEEFE/JASON STANYEK/SCOTT WALTON/GLEN WHITEHEAD
Tunnel
Circumvention 038

Putting together a drummer-less combo has evolved past novelty to assertion. But the underlying sonic concept and with whom you choose to play, makes an important difference in how your music is perceived. These two quartet session demonstrate that.

Chicago bassist Josh Abrams’ debut disc scores because he had the foresight to recruit a band made up of players of vastly different experience to present a combination of his own and group compositions in 2002. Unfortunately, TUNNEL doesn’t fare as well. It does have cohesion, since all four participants were graduate students at the University of California San Diego School of Music when it was recorded in 1999. Probably for the same reason though, parts of the CD smack of over familiarity, others of academic ostentation. One result is that its seven compositions seem to take up more listening time than CIPHER’s 10 tracks, even though the second disc is actually about four minutes longer.

Familiar with the ins-and-out of the improv tradition Abrams and crew are able to bring echoes of whatever they need to fit each tune. Meantime the Californians, for all their technical prowess are — or were — committed to near-static development with the CD floating on a mixture of electro-acoustic elements and post-production editing.

Not that non-jazz experimentation is unfamiliar to the CIPHER crew. Abrams has played with bands as different as avant-pop outfit Town And Country and jazz groups lead by saxist David Boykin and flautist Nicole Mitchell. Guitarist Jeff Parker is as comfortable working with the electronic-tinged Chicago Underground groups as veteran tenorman Fred Anderson. Reedist Guillermo Gregorio’s output moves between experimental New music and pure impov. And German trumpeter Axel Dörner, while an exceptional improviser within the jazz tradition, is one of the few brass men who is evolving a 21st century language for his horn.

Some of these elements come into play on the title tune. Gregorio’s clarinet timbres unfold from a bubbling line that floats on top of the others to resonating tongue slaps. Dörner’s cavernous slide trumpet entry seems to start at the mouthpiece and chromatically blow shifting air though the bell. Soon his kazoo-like sonority nearly reaches trombone pitch and is accompanied by hearty double bass thumps.

Written by the trumpeter, “Background Beneath”, on the other hand, is blithe freebop. While passing the theme back and forth, the four migrate to Cool Jazz territory. Dörner takes a muted, breezy solo that could have come from Jack Sheldon; Parker produces some luxurious Barney Kessel-like chords; and Gregorio’s airy alto saxophone trills resemble those of Bud Shank. Abrams, in mainstream Curtis Counce mode, takes a four square solo without upsetting the delicate equilibrium. The ending is made up of rondo intimations from chordal guitar as the horns murmur octaves apart.

“Space Modulator”, written by the reedist, is a contrapuntal essay featuring soaring single note fills from the guitar, deep-in-the throat growls from the trumpeter and

bouncing lines from its composer. As Gregorio’s alto honks get more atonal, Dörner’s flutter tongued trills become more smoothly muted, with summation double-stopped bass lines moved along by cheering horn inserts.

With guitar and clarinet in the forefront, Abrams’ “Neb Nimaj Nero” has Parker in dulcet Joe Pass mode, vibrating a long-lined solo with plenty of tremolo. The Six strings only turn spiky when the reedist’s Jimmy Giuffre-like clarinet needs shoring up as it morphs from gentle to cavernous to ethereal.

Alternately Dörner may begin “Mental Politician” with lightly blown spittle lines from his slide trumpet, but once the wiggling guitar lines and bass strokes have interrupted his constantly buzzed breath, all the players begin trading fours as if they were playing mainstream jazz. Finally the genre-bending spills across the bar lines with the brassman producing a white noise of growling grace notes, the reedist sounding his highest tones, Parker exhibiting colorful slurred fingering and the bass man providing broken note accompaniment.

A change of pace, “As See” is made up of elongated pitches forged by the horns from a narrow band of slowly moving tones and constant vibrations. It’s a solid mass that moves without ever coming apart.

Distressingly, what is a one track experiment for Abrams’ band, characterizes most of the overly long tracks of TUNNEL, which may be why it took four years for the session to be released. Collectively the four musicians have worked with dancers and filmmakers and played with West Coast heavies including trombonist George Lewis, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and shakuhachi stylist Phil Gelb.

Yet here trumpeter Glen Whitehead, Pat O’Keefe on clarinet, bass clarinet, Jason Stanyek on fretless and quarter-tone guitars and Scott Walton on bass and piano seem to have hitched their band wagon to extended, metallic electro-acoustic timbres.

Perhaps it’s the scratched and screeched micotones from Stanyek’s guitars that create the unvarying continuum, but it’s hard to tell one group improvisation from the next. Most appear to consist of simple, protracted tones that could have been strained through an oscillator. Constant, connected sound loops, the solo impulses that peek through include whinnying ambient muted trumpet tones, intermittent bass clarinet growls and low frequency hard pressured piano lines.

On “Grain”, when Whitehead and Walton unite for a short duo, the impressionistic cadenzas from the keys and the flattish, wavering undulations are about as far from Ruby Braff-Ellis Larkins territory as anyone could can imagine. Whether they’re an improvement is a matter for debate. Mechanized vocal sounds, distorted guitar feedback and reverb and a squealing clarinet run strength the output at times, until it all vanishes into silence.

Stanyek’s mono-tonality pales compared to Parker’s multi-facility. and when at one point O’Keefe appears to be sounding two horns at once with a Middle Eastern wiggle, you suspect that the effect is less the product of Rahsaan Roland Kirk virtuosity than post-production editing.

In short doses some of the electro-acoustic sounds seem valid. At one point for instance, Whitehead resonate his as axe as if he was playing it through a metal shield, and at other points unidentified swirls of electronics buzz, waver and vibrate. But too often it appears as if all four musicians are struggling through oozing aural mud.

Others whose textural appreciation is greater will probably rate this session higher. But, especially when compared with the quirky mastery exhibited on CIPHER, it has to come out second, or perhaps third best. Four years is a long time in contemporary music. Maybe the TUNNEL four have since expanded their tunnel vision and created something that will show up this CD as the student study it undoubtedly is.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Cipher: 1. Mental Politician 2. And See 3. Neb Nimaj Nero 4. Cipher 5. Calamities Break 6. No Theory 7. Background Beneath 8. First Tune That Night 9. Space Modulator 10. For SK

Personnel: Cipher: Axel Dörner (trumpet, slide trumpet); Guillermo Gregorio (alto saxophone, clarinet) Jeff Parker (guitar); Josh Abrams (bass)

Track Listing: Tunnel: 1. Threshold 2. Trace 3. Boundaries 4. Graft 5. Sliver 6. Measure 7. Time, Not Tide

Personnel: Tunnel: Glen Whitehead (trumpet); Pat O’Keefe (clarinet, bass clarinet); Jason Stanyek (fretless and quarter-tone guitars); Scott Walton (bass and piano)