FRANK GRATKOWSKI

Facio
Leo Records CD LR 398

Quietly and with little fanfare German multi-reedist Frank Gratkowski has become one of the go-to guys if leaders need to add animation to their bands. Now the Cologne-based musician who has enlivened bands led by British drummer Tony Oxley, Dutch pianist Michiel Braam and America drummer Gerry Hemingway — who returns the favor here — has put together a quartet to play nine of his own compositions.

On this impressive, more than 65½-minute outing, all hands are on deck. That means besides Hemingway and Gratkowski, who plays alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet here, the band is filled out by inventive Dutch trombonist

Wolter Wierbos and bassist Dieter Manderscheid. Manderscheid, like Gratkowski, from Cologne, also plays with the likes of drummer Martin Blume and trombonist Johannes Bauer

While not described as a suite, many of the tracks on FACIO run into one another, alternating atmospheric, atonal tunes that distribute pitches and melodies among different instruments, with ones that utilize polyphonic harmonies for modernistic swing and rhythm.

The best example of this may be the trio of pieces that begin with the more than 11½-minute “Part 5[rush]”. Together they manage to tie each of those sometimes-contradictory compositional tropes into a unified whole.

Starting off in near bebop tempo with trombone blasts, hocketing clarinet trills, a strummed bass line and bouncing cymbals and press rolls from the drummer, each man fits his part so well that the result could be stylized Dixieland. Then Wierbos takes off, adding a burr to his double tongued output, blowing bubbly grace notes that are met by polyphonic counterlines from Gratkowski’s alto sax. As Hemingway on cymbals and Manderscheid walking keep up the bop resemblance on the bottom, the reedist shreds his solo into tiny split tones as Wierbos slurs on top of it. Finally a descending bass line pushes the piece into a showcase for nearly soundless single string strokes, as both horns twitter understated tones.

This strategy runs the tune right into “Part 6 [interference]”, where buzzing metallic ‘bone tones and chalumeau clarinet blurts and tongue slaps combine and build up to irregular vibrations. Hemingway subtlety varies the rhythm as the front line tosses mini phrases back and forth. Shouting around his reed, Gratkowski’s quirky timbres makes a fine companion to Wierbos’ plunger trombone work, whose drone finally dissolving into watery bluster.

This sodden motif serves as the connective tissue to the next track, where low-pitched harmonies from the double bass and contrabass clarinet become almost indistinguishable. As the other three instruments smear their parts in unison, Hemingway exposes a polyrhythmic counter line that evolves into a spectacular display of nerve beats mixed with timed pressure on the snare, tom and bass drums.

In contrast, some of the tracks gallop along at jolly, Braxtonian march tempo, complete with arching clarinet trills. Still others confine themselves to moderato atonalism like “Part 2 [moving shades]”. Built on pantonality, the tune features sluicing string spiccato, beanbag-like shakes from the drummer and slinky unison horn smears. Fading into sound particles, then silence, it’s up to the next track to slice the connective tissue and pick up the tempo.

Exhilaration wins out in the end, as you hear on “Part 9 [celebration]”, the album’s finale. Featuring twittering clarinet, chromatic plunger acceleration from the trombonist, and near Native Indian ceremonial hand drumming from Hemingway, the broken chords eventually resolve themselves into a pulsating beat. As the shards coagulate, the tune offers two false turnarounds of the basic riff separated by seconds of silence, before the session ends.

When the ultimate sounds are a two-second attempt by the horns to rev up again, FACIO is confirmed as a go-to session for well-played, moving, modern music.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Part 1 [evocation] 2. Part 2 [moving shades] 3. Part 3 [mix up] 4. Part 4 [seek] 5. Part 5 [rush] 6. Part 6 [interference] 7. Part 7 [low] 8. Part 8 [outburst 9. Part 9 [celebration]

Personnel: Wolter Wierbos (trombone); Frank Gratkowski (alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet); Dieter Manderscheid (bass); Gerry Hemingway (drums)