A Gift for the Unusual -- Music for Contrabass Saxophone
Nine Winds NWCD 0239

At this late date you’d figure that there weren’t (m)any reeds left for Los Angeles sax maven Vinny Golia to play, let alone master. Yet the 11 tracks on this CD show the many paths a veteran improviser can follow when breaking in a new axe — in case a specially built Eb contrabass saxophone.

Developed by instrument maker Benedict Eppelsheim in Munich, Germany, and also called the tubax, it’s lighter and more responsive than the conventional contrabass saxophone, but offers the same power and depth. Swiss reedman Peter A. Schmid is its only other well-known practitioner.

Calling on five associates and a bit of studio trickery, Golia showcases the reed in a variety of solo, duo and trio situations. The results are mixed. While many of the tracks sparkle with the conjunction of distinctive reed gymnastics and textures from other instruments, a couple of times, Golia is so enamored with his new acquisition that he buries himself in technical exercises. The situation is further exacerbated by some jumbled personnel listings. It turns out that some sidepeople appear on tracks later or before they’re listed on the sleeve.

On the plus side are pieces like “The Mozart of Vice”, Eye My” and “The 15th ”. The last features bassist Bill Casale on deep-toned shuffle bass and Wayne Peet on wheezing theremin and oscillating synthesizer whose ghostly swipes produce a sci-fi soundtrack-like backing. In contrast to these extraterrestrial sound textures are subterraneous pitches vibrating from the contrabass sax that become so powerful that they overcome sounds from the cosmos. As the synth loops and ponticello bass chords try to maintain their place, Golia’s tubax tone sinks lower and lower until his slurs resemble a dense mass.

“Eye My” on the other hand could be termed outside swing, as honky-tonk piano voicing that follow their own internal logic mix it up with stentorian blats from the contrabass saxophone. Borne upon faint walking bass accompaniment, Peet’s high frequency flashing arpeggios and cascading chords make a unique rhythm team with Golia’s double tonguing bass clef explorations.

Double counterpoint appears on “The Mozart of Vice”, where Casale’s double-stopping walking bass lines and Golia’s firmly vibrated sax notes take a back seat to blustery trombone lines from Michael Vlatkovich. Blusy but airy, the trombonist’s verbalized nonsense syllables meet tubax snorts and smears as the two low-pitched horns meld into a single, elongated tone. With Peet comping behind him, Golia finally breaks loose to produce even deeper tones.

Adding the tubax to Peet on organ and Bill Barrett on chromatic harmonica for “Once upon a time on the way to the studio” is a bit iffier. While the keyboardist’s church organ-like continuum provides a proper improvisational pattern, the contrasts between the massive, utterly-modern sax slurs and rasping harmonica timbres that are as simple as those played by Sonny Terry is too immense to overcome.

Even more technical exercises by Golia alone fare even worse. Moving quickly from blustery, watery pitches to reed-chewing portamento tones seems to lack anything more than hubris, as does the penultimate piece which features buzzing, split-tone screams at one point and prolonged, circular-breathing bellows at another. Techniques on show, which include a collection of snorts, quick-breaths and tongue pops may impress professional woodwind players — as they should — but the sense of story telling obvious in other tunes is missing.

So too is it lacking on the one track which finds Golia demonstrating his new axe’s extreme capacity by overdubbing five different tubax parts, then outputting every imaginable timbre from earth-shaking low to grainy, sprawling high. At points the five phantom reeds free themselves from the shifting protoplasmic bulk to be heard clearly playing single parts, but studio wizardry shouldn’t be an end in itself.

In short, A GIFT FOR THE UNUSUAL is perfect for long-time Golia followers or reed demons of every stripe. However, for most of us, the exceptional tracks here show that the tubax’s suppleness is best heard in a group context.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Single Booth Enclosure - Prime 2. Repetition 3. Mr. Ammons Builds His Bridge 4. Eye My 5. Single Booth Enclosure - Revisitation 6. The Mozart of Vice 7. The 15th 8. Just Something I Thought of 9. Once upon a time on the way to the studio 10. A history of everything that ever happened 11. The last of its kind

Personnel: Michael Vlatkovich (trombone); Vinny Golia (contrabass saxophone); Wayne Peet (piano, organ, electric piano, theremin and synthesizer); Bill Barrett (chromatic harmonica); Jessica Catron (cello); Bill Casale (bass)