KEVIN NORTON’S LIVING LANGUAGE

Intuitive Structures
Cadence Jazz Records CJR 1166

LARRY OCHS/JOAN JEANRENAUD/MIYA MASAOKA
FLY, FLY, FLY
Intakt CD 092

Cellos and tenor saxophones have similar timbres, which means that increasingly composers are putting together combos that use this musical blend as a starting point for improvisation.

Even though both CDs here feature that line up as well as four long compositions each, the results couldn’t be more different. That’s because New Jersey-based percussionist Kevin Norton plays up the jazz-orientation of his quartet, while Oakland, Calif.-based saxist Larry Ochs of ROVA Quartet fame, injects his cellist into a musical situation that draws on structured and cued improvisations mixed with elements of so-called New and World music.

A former member of the Kronos String Quartet, Joan Jeanrenaud, who is featured on FLY FLY FLY, has expanded her palate from contemporary classical to improv in the company of players with catholic interests like Ochs and guitarist Fred Frith. INTUITIVE STRUCTURES’ cellist on the other hand is Tomas Ulrich, who is firmly in the jazz orbit working with saxophonist Ivo Perelman, guitarist Don Minasi and for many years with Norton.

FLY’s third participant is kotoist Miya Masaoka, a veteran of through composed and ethnic situations, whose instrument’s 21-strings have blended with the reeds of John Butcher as well as Ochs. Meanwhile Norton’s band is filled out with other Free Jazzers — bassist John Lindberg, co-founder of the String Trio of New York, and tenor and soprano saxophonist Louie Belogenis, a longtime associate of seminal jazz figures like drummer Rashied Ali. Notwithstanding this, Norton’s prowess on vibraphone, drums and percussion add yet another dimension to his disc.

On its own, the quartet isn’t afraid to turn out its version of swing — consider there are two run-throughs of Norton’s “Walking the Dogma”. The instrumentation conjures up memories of vibist Red Norvo’s drum-less trio on one hand, and with the cello treated as another horn, Ornette Coleman’s piano-less quartets on the other.

“Etude for Ricky W.” unites these various strands in diverse ways. Soon after the piece begins, for instance, Lindberg’s slinky ponticello lines are followed by double tongued musette-like nasal quacks from Belogenis’ soprano. Shuffle bowing from Ulrich and Pops Foster-like slap bass from Lindberg opens up a soundfield for Norton, who takes advantage of the gap with wood block thwacks, tubular bell resonation, güiro-like scrapes and tones that could come from Kulingtang gongs. As the two string players alternate between walking bass lines and bouncing string patterns at one another, Belogenis on tenor saxophone, smears, soars and split his notes into harsh shards with intense vibrato and squeaking overtones. Norton exits the tune with a quasi march tempo that then dissolves into smacks on a single cymbal plus the sound of what seems to be a cloth wiping the drum tops.

Polyphony and double counterpoint characterize many of the other compositions, whether they start from a through composed section or develop from group improvisations. On vibes Norton combines Gary Burton-like multi-mallet work with the sort of well-paced reverberating timbres you’d associate with Milt Jackson. Of course his concept is more advanced and abstract than either man. It would have to be, since Belogenis’ John Coltrane-influenced attack could bury delicate instruments like the vibes and cello.

During the course of the two “Dogma”s for instance, the reedist’s output moves from floating, slurred pitches to bottom feeder honks and from frenzied note pecking to wider, more vibrato-laden lines that recall Trane’s modal work mixed with a bagpipe-like drone. Lindberg contributes long-lined portamento bowing that touches on legit technique and rock steady pulses. Ulrich’s snaking tones can be positioned with violin-like jettes or swing with convergent arpeggios. On drums Norton rumbles when he has to, or produces a snare and cymbal tap dance, the better to meld with the double stopping bass and cello.

In contrast, FLY’s string section is limited to a single person with Jeanrenaud’s more formal style a sharp contrast to Ulrich’s freer output with Norton. Then again her role on this CD is different as well. Sometimes the tunes depend on her legato sweeps to provide a backdrop upon which the cascading waterfall of koto strings blend — or at least meet — harsh, altissimo squeals from Ochs’ sopranino.

In other spots, there are contrapuntal harmonic duets between the quivering tones of Ochs’ sax and lightly pressured arco cello parts. When this happens, it’s Masaoka who provides the comprehensive continuum. The koto isn’t just used as an exotic color organ either. On a blusey section of “Mystery Street”, as the saxman creates irregular vibrations and double tongued trills, Masaoka counters with chromatic flat-picking that could come from a Neapolitan mandolin. Alternately, Ochs mouthpiece buzzing and jagged, shuffle bowing from Jeanrenaud bring forward an assembly line of single strong snaps and sweeps from the koto.

Electronics, anathema to more orthodox Free Jazzers makes its appearance on the final track here. Still, the sine wave treatments, courtesy of Masaoka, merely diffuse the sound or let the koto’s 21 strings resonate with more depth. They don’t become an end in themselves. Providing cyclic accents among the koto’s glissandos, the plug-in moments are weighted against integers of intermittent sopranino squeaks and flutter tonguing plus percussive suggestions from the cello that appear to go beyond col legno and sul tasto to open handed smacks on the ribs.

Central to the session is the appropriately titled more than 23-minute “Heart of the Matter”, with its constant changes in mood, tempo, direction and harmonies. Beginning with bravura sopranino obbligatos, as if it was a folk air, the kotoist provides chromatic strumming and the cellist shuffle bowing.

After Ochs’ air raid siren nasality is moderated into an Arabic sounding theme, a deluge of variations from the koto polyphonically fill the spaces. Jreanrenaud, meanwhile, slides out a pitch that could come from a muted trumpet, finally creating fulsome double stops upon which Ochs introduces glottal punctuation and Masaoka chromatic flat-picking.

Finally, after ponticello strokes from Jeanrenaud, irregular vibrations and false fingering from Ochs and a set of glissandi from Masaoka, slither back-and-forth for emphasis, the climax arrives. It turns out to be breathy, folkloric smears from the saxist and vague classical arpeggios from the cellist, which link the theme to its beginning.

Eastern, Western, notated, cued and improvised musics meet on these two sessions to auspiciously demonstrate how versatile bands that texturally partner saxophone and cellos can be.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Fly: 1. Fly Fly Fly 2. Mystery Street 3. Heart of the Matter 4.It Happened One Night*

Personnel: Fly: Larry Ochs (sopranino and tenor saxophones); Joan Jeanrenaud (cello and sampling*); Miya Masaoka (koto and electronics*)

Track Listing: Intuitive: 1. Walking the Dogma #2 2. Etude for Ricky W. 3. Aquarius 4. Walking the Dogma #1

Personnel: Intuitive: Louie Belogenis (tenor and soprano saxophones); Tomas Ulrich (cello); John Lindberg (bass); Kevin Norton (drums, vibes and percussion)