Giants of Jazz
The Legendary Royal Records RR 90 210

I, Claudia
Cuneiform Rune 187

Hand another accolade to 30-something musicians — they’ve finally liberated the accordion.

Once the preserve of polka bands — or worse — Lawrence Welk’s champagne music, the reedy sound of the bellows and keys has made distinct inroads into contemporary improv in the hands of stylists from both Europe and North America. Two of the most accomplished — Oslo’s Frode Haltli and New York’s Ted Reichman — help shape the sound of these two bands.

Although a further question uniting both these discs is how much of the material is written and how much improvised, I CLAUDIA and GIANTS OF JAZZ, are as different as their formations. On the later, Haltli is part of the five-year-old Poing trio, which play the works of contemporary Norwegian composers with improvised sections. Besides recording with the improv No Spaghetti Edition ensemble in Oslo, the accordionist has performed as a soloist with several orchestras in Europe and Asia. Both bassist Håkon Thelin, who is part of the contemporary music Oslo Sinfonietta, and reedist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm stand more often on the legit side of the fence. Obviously then, the CD title is more tongue in cheek than descriptive.

I CLAUDIA on the other hand is the second CD by the six-year-old Claudia Quintet playing pieces by John Hollenbeck. The percussionist moves in New music, jazz and improv circles and his music and sidefolk reflects those parameters. He has gigged with the Village Vanguard Orchestra, trumpeter Cuong Vu and composer Meredith Monk among many others. Reichman has played with reedists Anthony Braxton and David Krakauer, while bassist Drew Gress has worked with jazzers as mainstream as pianist Fred Hersch and as out as altoist Tim Berne. Vibist Matt Moran’s collaborators include bassist Mark Dresser and violist Mat Manner, while reedman Chris Speed has worked with Berne and pianist Uri Caine.

All of which means that even if a piece such as “Adowa” is supposed to be programmatic enough to echo West African funeral sounds, the bouncy drums, bass and vibe rhythms suggest a funkier Modern Jazz Quartet, while Speed’s clarinet spits out mid-range growling obbligatos. Meanwhile, the countermelody from the accordion slides from Parisian music hall to Balkan country dances in the space of a couple of minutes.

Similarly, “Arabic” may offer up a whirling dervish circumnavigation from Moran’s wooden marimba that moves into gamelan territory and irregularly vibrated clarinet trills. But sounds from the accordion keys and the trap set are strictly straightahead. Propelled on high frequency, growling dynamics from Reichman’s bellows the tune moves from adagio to andante with single note contributions from vibe mallets and clarinet reeds.

Most other tunes are based on the shared harmonies available when mouth reeds and manipulated reeds are voiced together, with the end products individually encompassing bleak, reverberating (Morton) Feldmanesque space, organ-like ecclesiastical suggestions that border on plain song and ringing repeated note patterns. Along the way the unique timbres of the squeeze box — spurred by irregular beats from Hollenbeck’s snare, toms and bass drum, twist themselves into what could be wind whistling tumbleweed accents, Old Country bouncy czardas or drones that could be produced electro-acoustically.

With the colors bouncing with reed glissandos and fourfold mallet reverberations, even the nine-minute salute to Hollenbeck’s comfy naptime “Couch” includes an almost marital drumbeat along with the gliding cushions of clarinet lines and accordion crescendos.

Over in Norway, Poing’s compositional forays are weakened by being subdivided into too many short sections. Eivind Buene’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity”, for instance, ostensibly unrolls over six tracks, as does Knut Olaf Sunde’s “(<>)”. [phew!]

The later comes across better, since among the stop-and-start variations, Nystrøm offers a soprano sax solo at the top and a baritone sax line at the end that provides different tonal qualities. Meanwhile, as he moves from key pops and swirling, whistling trills, Haltli introduces whirling and wavering multiphonics. Thelin’s bass stays pretty much in the background, however. At points, as well, the reedy squeezebox and the literal reed sound so similar that it’s often impossible to distinguish one from the other. Luckily as the timbres echo back-and-forth the sax slides from penny whistle territory to harsh lower-case lines as the accordion stays mid-range, producing a keyboard related continuum.

Nystrøm’s alto gets a workout on the former tune, with tongue slaps, irregularly vibrated notes, alp-horn like resonation and whirled split tones that reach falsetto and above. Meanwhile the accordion buffers the reed clicks with systematic, pulsating keyboard pressure.

Elsewhere on the disc, the few times when Thelin promulgates a more powerful bass line the reverberations make Poing resemble another unconventional improv trio — Australia’s The Necks — while the droning pulses of the accordion can sometimes make the ear think it’s hearing electro-acoustic tones. A bonus video track is alternately bleak and spacey. The dissonant sound is distanced from the visuals which alternate between primitive performance, band standing around shots and updated, pseudo psychedelica that resembles computer screen savers.

Most instructively, the Øyvind Torvund-penned title track is about as far as a recreation of the styles of say, Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker — to pick two “giants of jazz” at random — as can be imagined.

When Thelin’s abrasive bowing, encompassing both legato and ponticello techniques, is added to Haltli’s bumpy vibrated overtones and Nystrøm’s braying, back of the throat growls the effect is what could be expected if Pauline Oliveros and Albert Ayler were put in charge of the band at Bedlam. Classic Jazz it ain’t. But as the unstoppable lumps, thumps and bumps are exposed in an orgy of fleet-fingered high- intensity keyboard smears and squealed sax cadenzas, Poing proves that its Euro creations are unidentifiable enough to bob up with a singular individuality in the sea of modern improv.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Giants: 1. Essential Extensions 2.-7. Seven Types of Ambiguity 8. Fisk i kjerka 9*. - 14#. (<>) 15. Giants of Jazz

Personnel: Giants: Rolf-Erik Nystrøm (soprano*, alto and baritone# saxophones); Frode Haltli (accordion); Håkon Thelin (bass)

Track Listing: I: 1. just like him 2. Opening 3. “arabic” 4. The Cloud of Unknowing 5. Adowa (for gra) 6. “… can you get through this life with a good heart?” 7. Misty Hymen 8. couch

Personnel: I: Chris Speed (tenor saxophone and clarinet); Ted Reichman (accordion); Matt Moran (vibes); Drew Gress (bass); John Hollenbeck (drums)