Counting On Angels

Intakt CD 084

Pity the poor bass player.

Over the past couple of decades improvisers have distanced themselves still further from the so-called jazz scene by playing in different configurations. One of the most common scenarios is jettisoning the bassist of the standard jazz trio and recording with just piano and drums — the way masters of the Stride piano did in the 1920s.

No one is likely to confuse COUNTING ON ANGELS or ULRICHSBERG for a Willie “The Lion” Smith session, but neither will they mistake one for the other. Adapting distinct roots to the creations at hand, both piano-percussion duos have come up with equally memorable CDs.

Scots drummer Ken Hyder and British-Russia pianist Vladimir Miller had to travel further to create their duo conception however. Although the CD was recorded in London, it reflects their experience playing with local musicians in the former Soviet Union, from Leningrad to Vladivostok and from Arkhangelsk to Tuva. More importantly, both come to this amalgam of stripped down improv and Russian near-classicism honesty.

Brought up in the West, Miller now divides his time between Russia and his home in London. He has worked extensively in Russia, led The Moscow Composers Orchestra on several tours and played with locals like former Ganelin Trio percussionist Vladimir Tarasov. Similarly, after mixing Scottish traditional folk music with jazz in bands like Hoots and Roots with singer Maggie Nicols, Hyder has been a regular visitor to another northern area — the then U.S.S.R. — especially Siberia — since 1990. Besides playing with Miller in different bands, he has also studied throat-singing and local shamanic music.

Both Swiss, pianist Irène Schweizer and drummer Pierre Favre’s association goes back further still — to 1966 to be exact. Two of the first Swiss players to bring an original perspective to what was then called Free Jazz, each has worked with numberless musicians over the years. Schweizer even recorded a set of bass-drum albums several years ago.

Named for the Austrian festival at which it was recorded, ULRICHSBERG is a continuous live performance without cuts or omissions. Almost from the inaugural notes of the aptly titled “Twin dialogue” — the first cut — you can hear the communication in phrasing and polyrhythms that results from each partners knowing the others’ moves intimately. At the same time, since the two don’t often play together — sometimes for years at a time — what Favre describes as the “risk” that keeps “living communication” vital, is as present as the skill they express in dual improvising.

As mercurial on this track as elsewhere on the CD, Schweizer concentrates on harsh contrasting dynamics, building up counter themes and counter melodies with both hands as she plays. You never forget that she has 88 keys and two clefs with which to work. High frequency tremolos appear and octaves flash by as she works her way up and down the keyboard. Meanwhile Favre rolls and thunders right beside her. As she moves to a walking bass, honky tonk-like collection of flying polyrhythms, the drummer seems to be staying out of her way but is actually constructing subtle rhythm patterns behind her. The climax finds her displaying characteristic duple time and exaggerated repeated note patterns.

Duple time variations are also put to good effect on “Ulrich, Ulrich, der Wagen bricht!”, which is dedicated to the late German bassist Peter Kowald, who worked with both duo partners. Attacking the keys and soundboard with primordial power, Schweizer produces additional vibrations with nearly every note. Building up the tension, she then gears down to right-handed, adagio tremolos, coloring the delicate skeins with grace notes. In sympathy, Favre murmurs peacefully from wood blocks and cymbals.

The pianist’s pulsating syncopation can appear with pressure as tough as anything Cecil Taylor or McCoy Tyner would create, or, in contrast, be expressed as an understated sprightly air as on “Waltz for Lois”, the set’s encore performance. Highlighting unique swing based on internal logic and feathery left-handed dynamics, at one point it appears as if Schweizer would like to start playing the intro to “House of the Rising Sun”. On this piece, Favre mixes things up with bass drum accents. Elsewhere he uses rebounds and wood-on-wood drumstick nerve beats to meet Schweizer’s speedy glissandos and skittering ployrhythms.

Mallets struck on the sides and rims of his kit provide some of the accompaniment for “Unwritten messages”, as Schweizer metaphorically converts her piano to a chordophone. With harp-like arpeggios she plucks the inside piano strings with her fingers, resonating tones from the soundboard and finally letting the overtones subside to silence.

Perhaps reflecting the more bellicose qualities the Scots and Russians supposedly possess more than the Swiss, the other CD has much less understated and low frequency improvising than ULRICHSBERG.

On the suitably bellicose “Siege of Leningrad”, while Hyder creates quasi-martial snare drum beats from what seems to be the centre of his snare, Miller’s heavy touch builds power chording to flashing arpeggios. Soon he’s laying siege to the 88 keys in quadrants, working his way up the scale emphasizing both single notes and their sympathetic vibrations. Miller operates with the left-handed power of a boogie woogie pianist, while Hyder decorates the siege with cymbal smacks and rim shots.

“Bell-like rebounds and ruffs give an offbeat color to the metronomic forward motion of the piano on “Russian Rivers”, as the pianist sounds a complex up-and-down tempo throughout. With Hyder’s press rolls parying the thrusts of Miller’s coordinated pounding, the pianist showcases a dynamic duplex scale with all its overtones with one hand, and something that veers perilously close to “Chopsticks” with the other.

Not all the aural Slavic landscapes are that bleak however. Every bar doesn’t reflect slurred fingering keyboard fantasia or belligerent and accelerating percussion beats either. Dazzling hard and heavy piano etudes recall half-remembered Tin Pan Alley standards on “Obshennia”, while the playful “Russian Dolls” features high intensity chording played over clockwork-like shuffle rhythm. The later has the touch of pre-modern jazz about it, with broken time signatures and eccentric cadences moving to a grandfather clock-like beat from Hyder. The whole thing is cut off with second hand precision at the end.

Romanticism, that also purportedly inhabits the Russian soul, is dramatically exposed on “Angel’s Son”, the more than 13-minute longest track. Miller tries out a two-handed, quasi-Swing style replete with strummed chords and doubled overtones, then builds up Chopinesque patterns of uneven note clusters. Hyder intermittently strokes his snares and cymbals, and maintains his version of a swinging pulse with rebounds, ratamacues and doubled bass drum entries. Finally the pianist unfolds arpeggios like so many flower pedals, sweeping over the keys with a featherlight touch.

On paper two piano-drums duos may seem similar. On CD, owing to the talent of the four performers, the results are as different as the politics of Russian and Switzerland.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Counting: 1. Hear the Fear in the Dark Forest 2. Angel’s Son 3. Siege of Leningrad 4. Russian Dolls 5. Sayan Flying 6. Russian Rivers 7. Obshennia

Personnel: Counting: Vladimir Miller (piano); Ken Hyder (drums)

Track Listing: Ulrichsberg: 1. Twin dialogue 2. It’s about time 3. Ulrich, Ulrich, der Wagen bricht! (dedicated to Peter Kowald) 4. Unwritten messages 5. Nomades 6. Waltz for Lois

Personnel: Ulrichsberg: Irène Schweizer (piano); Pierre Favre (drums)