(Not Two)

La Sketch Up
(Kilogram Records)

by Ken Waxman April 26, 2004

Musical siblings have been a familiar sight in jazz going back to the 1920s, when clarinetist Johnny Dodds and drummer Warren “Baby” Dodds played with Louis Armstrong. Just think of the contributions of brothers Lester and Lee Young, Nat and Cannonball Adderley and Butch and Wilber Morris for other examples.

Yet, except for bassist Addison and flugelhornist Art Farmer, the number of twins who function at the same high level of musical talent has been limited. At least, that is, until the Polish Oles brothers came along.

Krakow-based bassist Marcin Oles and drummer Bartlomiej Brat Oles, born January 4, 1973 in Sosnowiec, have become two of that country’s most in-demand players. It’s not just that they’re a first-class rhythm section, as they’ve proved in recordings with American saxophonist David Murray among others, but that they’re fine instant and singular composers as well — as they show on these trio sessions. “Brat”, by the way doesn’t mean what it seems for English speakers; it means “brother” in Polish.

A co-op effort, La Sketch Up matches the twins with a local reedist of a slightly older generation. Mikolaj Trzaska, who plays alto and baritone saxophones and bass clarinet here, leads his own bands and has worked with American brassman Lester Bowie and fellow Pole, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko.

Even more impressive is Miniatures, which is anything but reductive. Recorded less than five months after the first disc, it finds the two Oles working out on a program of mostly their own tunes helped immeasurably by Theo Jörgensmann playing a basset clarinet, which is pitched one third lower than the usual clarinet. Jörgensmann, who is old enough to be the twins’ father, is a German jazz and New music explorer who has been refining his sound since the 1960s. Along the way he co-authored the book “Ethics of Improvisation” and has played with, among others, Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, as part of Clarinet Contrast with Michel Pilz and American Perry Robinson, and recently recorded a salute to Ornette Coleman — an Oles favorite as well.

Besides their theatre music and other gigs, the brothers have played in similar single-reed-and-rhythm trio combinations since 1998, which may explain the excellence of the second date. But, of course, the creative inspiration provided by the German visitor helps as well. Listen to his a cappella showcase on “Theo I”, for example. Using a combination of light-toned cadenzas, quick false fingerings and doits, he manages to play the sort of overtones and multiphonics that has him stand out in both avant-jazz and contemporary classical circles. Plus he does this while maintaining a pleasant tone.

Jörgensmann can also make it appear as if he’s blowing two reeds at once, as he does on “Budda”, where dark, legato timbres gradually transform themselves into vibrated split tones. Before the theme morphs into an offbeat tango — or is it a polka? — his horn produces a wide-ranging glissando that’s backed by circular flams and gyrating bell tree sounds from the drummer, while the bassist picks out a bottom heavy continuum.

Unsurprisingly, Jörgensmann knows his jazz history as well. At one point he creates some mid-range Jimmy Giuffre-like lines that meet up with Brat’s shimmering ride cymbal and Marcin’s percussive pizzicato work; at another juncture he matches what appear to be strummed [!] drum heads and a walking bass line with a bouncy, double tongued Benny Goodman-style trill. Then there are the intense, vibrato-laden split tones he shows off elsewhere.

“Cocolique”, which seems to be a restrained version of “4-4” that proceeds it, finds the reedman introducing some Klezmer-style inflections on top of Bartlomiej’s bounces. And the piece ends with a quick slide down the scale. On “4-4” itself, Jörgensmann maintains a clear, clean tone even when his reed cries and smears. Triple tongued skimming from a high, shrill pitch down to chalumeau level doesn’t seem to affect the deft timbre either. Meantime Brat is shimmering his cymbals and Marcin shuffle bowing — that is when he’s not interrupting the bow work for the odd hearty pluck.

In his solos, the bassist is most impressive on the title track, with an a cappella introduction that is mostly abrasive ponticello. Once the clip-clops of the drums and resonating cymbals are evident, however, he double stops subtle inflections over the rhythm.

Compared to the concordance evident with Oles/Jörgensmann/Oles, Trzaska’s contribution seems definitely low energy on the other disc, even with his use of three horns. His preference for balladic tempos and breathy, mellow output limits the Oles brothers’ contributions, no matter how many atonal-style paradiddles or guitar-like flatpicks they individually contribute.

Because of this weakness, the stand out track on the suite that makes up La Sketch Up is “VI”, which at almost nine minutes is coincidentally the longest track as well. Starting slowly, with grating, repetitious thumps from Marcin, and Trzaska investigating the bottom notes of the bass clarinet, cowbell and rim shots from Bartlomiej help propel the piece into a John Coltrane-like single chord vamp. With the bassist providing the ostinato and the reedist playing the same three-note pattern over and over, the theme slowly moves from monotony to repetition to ecstasy. Marcin’s steel-fingered plucks soon spur Trzaska to pull out his baritone sax, and with it the older man smears basement-low timbres or leavens the theme with reed splitting falsetto shrills.

“VIII” and “IX” have something going for them as well. Although short in time, the former finds the saxist again slithering his way into Trane territory. Here he manhandles nearly every note to its upper partials … and then some. Quickly enough his squeals and slinks outmatch the regular tones. On the later, astute stickwork from the drummer and fingerpicking licks from the bassist bolster Trzaska’s hesitant, higher-pitched reed timbres. As Marcin hold the beat and Bartlomiej colors it — and at times threatens to turn it around — Trzaska forces out a pre-modern type of fluttering alto line with a wide vibrato — concluding with bubbling, perfectly round tones.

As for the rest of the disc, despite some focused shuffle bowing and rumbling pizzicato from the bassist, and nerve beats and rim shots from the drummer, Trzaska’s matter-of-fact output lacks vim. Judging from his reputation, though, it’s likely he does better elsewhere on other discs featuring the Oles twins.

Miniatures is definitely a CD to seek out. And even La Sketch Up will expose you to a memorable bass and drums duo that should be as well known in Western Europe and beyond as in the Eastern bloc. Maybe that will happen soon.