Jon Mueller/Bhob Rainey/Jim Schoenecker
Crouton Music crou023

Chris Forsyth/Chris Heenan
Reifyrecordings RE 002

Essays in microtonalism, these discs serve a dual purpose.

They show how American improvisers have gradually adopted glacially paced improv to their own needs — taking clues from European free musicians who, it should be noted, were initially inspired by Yank Free Jazzers. Additionally, the duo and trio members involved in each CD demonstrate how dexterous command of their chosen instruments can produce memorable electro-acoustic sessions, whether electronics are involved or not.

Each band includes a saxophonist, but that’s where the similarities end.

Both discs also involve partners from different cities showing how far this sub-genre of improv is spreading. Old hand at this type of miniscule musical elaboration is Boston-based soprano saxophonist Bhob Rainey, who now works with European microtonalists like French saxist Michel Doneda and German inside pianist Andrea Neumann as well as in the nmperign duo with trumpeter Greg Kelley. His partners here are two Milwaukee, Wis.-based players, percussionist Jon Mueller, who has also worked with the bands Pele and cellist Matt Turner; and synthesizer player Jim Schoenecker who releases electronic music CDs under the name “pressboard”.

Besides the synthesizer textures he brings to the table, Mueller manages to create distinctive tones by amplifying his drums through a home stereo system. Yet the performers on the other disc manage to formulate similar tones with no electronica in sight except for a guitar amp. Granted, though, both players thrive on the cutting edge of this sort of faux electric improv. New York-based guitarist Chris Forsyth works with advanced performers like pianist Dan DeChellis and fellow guitarist Ernesto Diaz-Infante. Los Angeles-based Chris Heenan who plays alto saxophone, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet here, has also worked with Diaz-Infante and further afield with German reedists Wolfgang Fuchs and Frank Gratkowski.

On the trio session one and two minute detonations of shattering percussiveness on the first and final tracks surround the meat of the action that takes place on two tracks of respectively nearly 26 and almost 20 minutes each.

Evolving from near silence, “[here teething moths have passed]” often sounds as if its reflecting those tiny varmints digging holes in perishable items. Featuring an underlying synthesizer hiss, cymbals are scraped and struck with a metal whisk, while burbling multiphonics roll from the saxophone, which then gradually become louder and throatier. It appears as if Rainey is blowing colored air through his gooseneck, as Mueller rotates items on the studio floor. Elsewhere, extended reed techniques range from a factory whistle-like shrill to honking Bronx cheers, duck-like quacks and squeaks and the panting of small, furry animals. Those mammals are evidentially unfettered in the studio, for cymbals and snares often sound as if they’re being scratched by the claws of the same beasts.

Ultimately, following pitch vibrations from the synth that could as easily come from a jackhammer or circular saw, plus sax tones created by blowing through the unattached mouthpiece, heightened sine waves cackles and crackles melt the trio’s individual textures back to stasis.

Similarly, “[holes]” is as much a record of the spaces between sounds as the notes themselves. Mueller appears to be searching for something within his trap set and hitting the odd percussion item by chance and without melody. Rainey contributes lightly breathed mouth noises and reed split tones that are dissonant, loud and finally split into pointillism. The percussionist propels his rim shots anywhere but the drumhead and an oscillating pulsation arise from Schoenecker’s reductionist energy transformation. It’s probably a testimony to all concerned that when the piece concludes with a very faint sound bubble, you’re not sure to which instrument you should ascribe it.

In New York a couple of months earlier there isn’t much question which tones arise from the reed arsenal and which from the guitar electronics during that CD’s six tracks. But both men are able to create enough references to non-specific intonations to move things along.

Heenan’s most distinctive timbres arise from the bottom-feeding contrabass clarinet, which he plays with the facility of Europeans like Fuchs and Swiss Hans Koch. But he never flaunts the overgrown horn’s tone on its own. Often moving from one horn to another within the pieces, snorting bellows mix with extensive tongue slaps, honks and general mouth percussion. One moment, as on “I begin to understand”, he reverberates shrill, treetop-high trills and the next minute is involved in gelatinous low-pitched growls. Meantime, Forsyth flat picks on the front of his strings then on the area beneath the bridge and uses a constant turn around as an ostinato.

Elsewhere, as on “I am not a technologist”, what sound like pealing bells and radio signal whistles arise from somewhere or someone. As the two players harmonically hit against one another’s tones like bumper cars in a carnival ride, Heenan produces legato alto lines as easily as sibilant, juicy reed gouts. Pulsating an undertone of snaps and thumps, the guitarist’s output include wood scrapes, circular hand movements and accompanying rumbles.

Then there’s the suggestion that both men are trying to channel waves from a recalcitrant radio by turning the dial every which way — but only reaching static and sine waves. On top of this, the reedist sounds wounded animal cries in false registers, while the guitarist bangs on his axe’s front to create even more static.

Ironically, “I listen more” is the only time that Forsyth indulges in a burst of reverberating guitar feedback, but it’s only one trick pony among his stable that includes harsh, banjo-like flailing, sudden down stroked rhythmic patterns, and slurred fingering. Hennan’s riposte includes resonating growls from deep within his horn’s body tube, compressed honks and keening flutter tonguing.

Made in U.S.A. microtonalism, both these CDs will impress anyone interested in following one aspect of how homegrown improv is evolving.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Jon: 1. [shredded paper, but] 2. [here teething moths have passed] 3. [holes] 4. [to tattered to read]

Personnel: Jon: Bhob Rainey (soprano saxophone); Jon Mueller (snare drums, home stereo system); Jim Schoenecker (synthesizer)

Track Listing: Chris: 1. I am not a technologist 2. I listen 3. I ask questions 4. I listen more 5. I begin to understand 6. I like the way you use language

Personnel: Chris: Chris Heenan (alto saxophone, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet); Chris Forsyth (guitar)