Ornette on Bass
Not Two MW 747-2

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Deep Music
Free elephant 003

Practically a seminar on solo and duo techniques of the double bass, the three CDs here show that there are multiple ways to showcase an instrument that in its basest (sic) definition is no more than a hunk of tempered wood strung with four long strands of wire.

Intriguingly enough, the three older players — duets between the late German bassist Peter Kowald (1944-202) and American William Parker on one hand, and Kowald and German Peter Jacquemyn on the other — stick to in-the-moment free expression, with mixed results. The youngsters, Poland’s Marcin Oles and Bolzano, Italy-born, Berlin resident Klaus Janek, follow more idiosyncratic paths.

Oles’ 12-track CD is a tribute to Ornette Coleman, creating versions of the alto saxophonist’s combo compositions using only his bass. Janek’s CASPAR2 is pure program music. It’s an interconnected six-part suite that seeks to explain the remarkable life of Kaspar Hauser, 19th century Germany’s so-called “wild boy” who emerged at age 16, from living in a pitch dark, tiny straw-filled container unable to walk or speak. Until he was murdered five years later speculation about his potential noble birth occupied Europe. Note the “2” in the title by the way. This 2004-recorded session is the second solo CD Janek has dedicated to the Hauser tale. CASPAR (Solponticello SP-004) was recorded in the late 1990s.

Janek may have consecrated two CDs to the “wild boy” over the past half decade, but countless musicians have been examining, interpreting and saluting the work of Coleman, who in his originality was seen as a “wild man” of jazz, when he first recorded in 1958. Oles may be the first bassist to record a whole solo CD of Coleman themes. But considering many of the heads harken back to the country blues string band tradition, a bull fiddle would seem to be ideal for the task.

You’ll certainly believe that once you’re heard the Krakow-based bassist traverse the tunes. For instance on “Humpty Dumpty”, he speeds up the tempo a bit, yet here and throughout the disc he allows the basic song-like quality of Coleman’s themes to come out. At times as well, his vibrations are such that plucks and the echoing malleable harmonic tones almost sound like two basses.

“Blessing”, on the other hand, is focused on relaxed pizzicato stylings that range all over the strings. Using a mellow tone, Oles never loses sight of the melody, even when double-stopping. For a climax he downshifts to barely audible plucks, then revs up to a more swinging pulse. “Law Years” gets a dramatic polyphonic reading with fricative broken cadenzas. Furthermore, his concentrated pizzicato slaps and his harsh arco runs are so convincing that any need for Coleman’s alto saxophone stating the head are negated.

Oles is comfortable enough with the music to create his own variations as well, adding a “Pop Goes the Weasel” interlude to “Soap Suds” after repetitive staccato bowing to give more color to the proceedings. He also performs three short versions of “Lonely Woman” — the saxman’s most famous composition — each substantially different. One turns the piece into a slap-bass showcase, with the variations preceding the overly familiar theme that’s signaled with flat-picking strums. More straightforward, the second features a throbbing ostinato from the lower strings; while the third and final atmospheric bowed version brings out the impressionistic menace buried within the tune.

Kept on an even keel, the improvisations on ORNETTE ON BASS, could almost be termed buffo, compare to how Janek’s 5-string ¾-size bass is used to outline the sad story of the wild child. Someone who has worked with players such as German multi-reedist Wolfgang Fuchs — as Oles has traded licks with American saxist David Murray among others — Janek’s skill is such that this recasting of CASPER sounds significantly different than his first version. It may have something to do with his experience with concerts, theater and dance-theatre performances.

Perhaps one can read too much into titles. But, for instance, should you hear the deepening ponticello and muffled col legno wood dragging sounds on “Arriving in the Box” as reflecting Hauser’s wooden imprisonment? When the grainy and abrasive double and triple stopping almost become inaudible and deadened though repetitive, does it mean the boy is trying to find his way out of the box?

Similar question arise with “Last Menuet”, which is “last minute” in German. Here it sounds as if two bows are being used — one to produce the pedal point and the other to sound out the low-spirited theme, that in German would probably be defined as a todtenlied. A few brief passages introduce a sprightly baroque-like line that sounds as if it’s being played by a cello, then a portamento, zart cadenza that’s cut off before the last strain. Does this represent Hauser’s murder?

Crying and squeaking semitones that scrape tremolos on top of the fingerboard and beneath the bridge, create secondary vibrations. Meanwhile long bow thrusts and spicatto bounces are also part of the recital, as is a tiny touch of walking bass.

But the most descriptive and varied soling takes place on “One Day out of 16 Years”. Creating enough screeching vibratos than one would think that a daxophone was being used, Janek moves his repeated note clusters from shuffle bowing in the lowest part of the bass stave through Bronx cheer-like eruptions into abstract, higher pitched timbres. During the piece some tones sound dense and muffled as if they’re coming from a faraway place. At times you could swear the textures arise from reeds and valves — or even a synthesizer — not strings. Finally, at a less-than-languorous pace, the piece draws to a close with diffuse, reverberation and fluttering wave forms until the buzzing string sounds fade into nothingness.

One of the master bassists that Janek studied with was Wuppertal, Germany’s Kowald, a pioneer of the solo bass recital. Double bass duos were another of his specialties as DEEP MUSIC demonstrates. But the two approximately 29-minute tracks couldn’t be more different.

The idea exchange with Parker, organizer of many Lower Manhattan festivals, record dates and collaborations — some with Kowald — features a meeting of minds exploring extended bass technique. Somehow the duo with Belgium sculptor and musician Jacquemyn recorded 17 months later produces more friction than insight. Jacquemyn, who works with American expat reedist Jeffrey Morgan and Kowald associate violinist Gunda Gottschalk, doesn’t seem to connect with Kowald. The music is deep in pitch but not communication.

Parker and Kowald were attuned enough to one another’s styles that they could shift parts at a whim. So it’s really difficult to know which one flat picks guitar-like lines at times while the other creates the basso continuum. Their duet is alive with staccato bowed tones on top of whinnying broken chords, constant col legno and concentrated double-stopping shuffle bowing which sometimes produce dog whimpers. Soon the ponticello squealing notes start to sound as if “Reveille” is being played. Meanwhile the other bassist bounces col legno tones back and forth, as moderato fine lines from the other bull fiddle ascend to Pomeranian squeals. One bassist uses circular motions to investigate what can be bowed on the peg box and over the fret board, while the other rumbles agitato broken octaves, altering the tonal centre as he plays.

In contrast, the Jacquemyn duet seems to limit itself to sliding side-to-side motions, more atonal than the work with Parker, but a dissonance of desperation rather than discovery. Much of the playing is a little too hushed and not assertive enough, as if each bassist is saying “you play something and I’ll follow”.

Oddly for veteran Euro Improvisers few distinguishing characteristics appear from either axe. Tones are lost, what should be powerful plucks take on rubber band consistency, resonation and scampering up and down the strings resembles aimless noodling rather than anything else. Five minutes before the end, one — Kowald? — unleashes a throbbing single line, but this attempt to get things back on track still leaves the performance pretty muffled. Squeals, whistles and squeaks finally dissolve to nothingness past a billowing oscillating tone.

Jacquemyn, and most definitely Kowald, have done much better work elsewhere and it’s discouraging to describe DEEP MUSIC as only half a session. Still bassists may be more impressed. On the other hand, everyone should be impressed with ORNETTE ON BASS and CASPAR2.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Ornette: 1. Echoes 2. Una Muy Bonita 3. Windows 4. Lonely Women 1 5. Shapes 6. Blessing 7. Lonely Women 2 8. Soap Suds 9. Law Years 10. Humpty Dumpty 11. Questions 12. Lonely Women 3

Personnel: Ornette: Marcin Oles (bass)

Track Listing: Caspar2: 1. First Years 2. Arriving in the Box 3. One Day out of 16 Years 4. Free 5. Last Menuet 6. Epilogue

Personnel: Caspar2: Klaus Janek (5-string ¾-size bass)

Track Listing: Deep: 1. Encounter I* 2. Encounter II+

Personnel: Deep: Peter Kowald, William Parker*, Peter Jacquemyn+ (basses)