Contemporary Quartet
Not Two MW 744-2

Using so-called classical themes as a basis for improvisation isn’t a new idea. John Kirby’s Sextet did so in the early 1940s and flautist Moe Koffman and the Modern Jazz Quartet got plenty of mileage out of re-interpreting Bach.

But using these themes as more than a jumping off point for unconnected soloing had to wait until a group of musicians exists that is as comfortable working on the improv side of the fence as the legit side. It also helped when some contemporary composers got over their snobbish distaste for so-called jazz music.

This sea change has been particularly evident in Europe, and that’s one of the reasons this CD is so special. Two young Polish players, plus a slightly older German clarinetist and a Romanian pianist, take nine pieces by contemporary Polish composers and transform them using the techniques and freedom of improv. Most notably, they don’t “jazz the classics”, but metamorphose the existing notation into organically legitimate new pieces. Drummer Bartlomiej Brat Oles, who arranged all the tracks, also throws in a couple of his own tunes here that naturally fuse with the other sounds.

Oles and his twin brother, bassist Marcin Oles, provide the Janus-headed hope for contemporary Polish jazz establishing itself as memorable and original. Not only have the two played with local heroes like saxists Mikolaj Trzaska and Adam Pieronczyk, but also with outsiders like American reedist David Murray, German bass clarinetist Theo Jörgensmann and the two foreigners featured here. “Brat”, by the way doesn’t mean what it seems to for English speakers; it means “brother” in Polish.

Accustomed to similar musical fusion, reedist Rudi Mahall is an inspired addition. He plays contemporary music with European orchestras and improvises often with Japanese pianist Aki Takase and guitarist Frank Möbus. Pianist Mircea Tiberian is one of the most active Romanian jazzers, having played with Americans including guitarist Larry Coryell and bassist Ed Schuller, as well as Poland’s best-known musical export, trumpeter Tomas Stanko.

Composers represented here are Paris-based Marzena Komsta; Krakow’s late Stefan Kisielewski; the late Witold Lutostawski, who taught in Sweden and United States; the late composer/pianist Grazyna Bacewicz, a neoclassicist with international stature; and most notably, composer/academic/conductor Krzysztof Penderecki, five of whose representative pieces are interpreted on the CD.

Although Penderecki was open minded enough to be involved in a similar jazz-classical fusion with American trumpeter Don Cherry and Stanko in 1971, it’s likely he never imagined his “Sonata III from Sonata for violin & piano 1953” as a drum showcase. But, as Bartlomiej Oles expresses it here, the sonata now includes shakes and rattles from various percussion instruments, cymbal and cowbell accents, nerve beat wooden stick sounds, tambourine shivers and straight rolls and flams from snares and toms. Other interpolations include abrasive ponticello bass lines that eventually morph into walking bass, key clipping from the pianist and exaggerated clown horn beeps that become a jaunty squealed countermelody arising from Mahall’s reed.

All this follows Tiberian’s oh-so-correct voicing of the theme on “Sonata I from Sonata for violin & piano 1953’ that only gradually features variations on the theme. Later the pianist’s low frequency linear playing turns to snaking cadenzas on “Sonata II from Sonata for violin & piano 1953”. On the same piece, Mahall carefully accents slurred single notes then note clusters, ending his solo with a gravelly siren-like tone, while Maricin Oles’ bass work includes extensive tremolo bowing and powerful Mingus-like pizzicato swoops.

Penderecki’s “Per Slava from Per Slava for cello solo 1986” is transformed into another bass showcase, with Oles’ shuffle bowing and grating arco lines evolving from scratches and bird-like squeaks to a legato melody. Mahall flutter tongues and key pops add color, eventually introducing trilling low notes following the pianist’s consonant chording and Brat’s boppy cymbal accents and bass drum thumps. With Marcin almost subliminally knitting the strands together from the bass clef, Tiberian sounds out a pastoral, double-timed line as Bartlomiej hits most parts of his kit without overpowering the other players. Coda is made up of unison floating bass clarinet and arco bass tones.

Bartlomiej’s restraint is confirmed on his own compositions, both of which are more notable for group contributions than drum fireworks. On “Seven Hands for contemporary quartet 2002” — which musician is missing a limb, by the way? — the steady clattering of rim shots, cymbal shimmers and press rolls merely adds to the quasi night club ambiance. Marcin alternates between walking bass lines, slides and shuffles, as Mahall emphasizes a slinky note pattern from the darkest part of his reed until shrill, but carefully modulated glissandos are heard. Standout here is the pianist, with a tough-touch keyboard fantasia. Working in vein that joins Wynton Kelley with McCoy Tyner, he emphasizes the changes with both hands, then decelerates into comping.

“April for contemporary quartet 2001,” Brat’s other tune, is more of the same with Tiberian’s playing ranging from 10-finger crescendos to speedy arpeggios to an ostinato of striding cadenzas. Meanwhile Mahall’s slurred double tonguing gives way to metallic spetrofluctuation and trilled vibrations.

With the pianist’s formalism including echoes of impressionistic jazz technicians like Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, and the reedist’s extended technique on hand to bring out every nuance — and more — of the compositions, this experiment in genre shifting works without exposing fissures.

Exemplary improvisers and organizers, CONTEMPORARY QUARTET is another example of why Marcin and Bartlomiej Oles’ names may soon lose their unfamiliarity for non-Polish jazz fans.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Prelude from Prelude for clarinet solo 1987 2. Duet from Suita for oboe & piano 1954 3. Langueur from Langueur for piano 1990 4. Sonata I from Sonata for violin & piano 1953 5. Sonata II from Sonata for violin & piano 1953 6. Sonata III from Sonata for violin & piano 1953 7. Foggy from Sonatina for oboe & piano 1955 8. April for contemporary quartet 2001 9. Per Slava from Per Slava for cello solo 1986 10. Seven Hands for contemporary quartet 2002 11. Bucolique no IV from Bucoliques for piano 1952

Personnel: Rudi Mahall (bass clarinet); Mircea Tiberian (piano); Marcin Oles (bass); Bartlomiej Brat Oles (drums)