Die Fäden
Pecan Crazy Records pc-24

Abzu 002

Serendipity plays a part in the appreciation of these two Free Music dispatches from fly-over country, those parts of the United States neither on the East or West Coast.

Although each arrived at different times from far different places — Babardah is based in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the E.C.F.A. Trio in Austin, Tex. — a certain earnestness and disregard for current fashions draws them together.

Both have unusual line-up, with the Michigan group consisting of a trombonist, a reed player, a violinist and a bassist, and E.C.F.A made up of tenor saxophone, drums and viola. Both testify to the existence of auspicious so-called avant-garde music makers in almost every pocket of North America.

A further bit of serendipity turned up when researching the musicians’ background. E.C.F.A. saxist Carl Smith, who has led the trio for eight years, lived in Detroit in 2002 and played with and recorded a CD with Mike Khoury, violinist on BABARDAH. Khoury has also worked with local (Detroit) reedist Faruq Z. Bey, who is celebrated on DIE FÄDEN’s first track, “Faruq’s Tone Row.” Violist James Alexander and drummer Jason Friedrich complete the Southwestern trio, and former Willem Breuker Kollektief saxist — and native Texan — Alex Coke is added on flute for his own “3 Eggs” which ends the program.

Babardah’s Piotr Michalowski is an academic, who plays sopranino, soprano and baritone saxophones and bass clarinet here. He has recorded previously with the band’s trombonist, Sarah Weaver, who is a specialist in so-called soundpainting and was associate conductor of The Walter Thompson Orchestra in New York. Another of her collaborators is this band’s Brooklyn, N.Y.-based bassist James Ilgenfritz, who moves in avant jazz and post-rock circles.

Working in the undefined area where instant composition meets energy music meets lower case improvisation, each group is growing into its own identity. Despite a line-up that suggests the New York Art Quartet with a fiddler instead of a drummer, Babardah is closer to subtle European microtonal explorations than the other band is. More closely attuned to Free Jazz, E.C.F.A.’s instrumentation sometimes draws comparison to Ornette Coleman’s trio of the early 1960s, without a bassist and with the viola and sax playing at the same time instead of sequentially in Coleman’s hands.

Smith, who has played with musicians ranging from the late German bass master Peter Kowald to veteran New York Free Jazzers multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter, has also written and performed chamber works. Though you would be able to tell that from his impassioned work on Die Fäden, which means “threadbare” in German.

Besides that, there seems to be plenty of improvisations tightly woven into the CD’s six tracks. Each composition has something to recommend it, with the longest “Big Mess” as indicative as the others.

Beginning with broken chords from the tenor and the viola, these tones gradually fray as Smith introduces honks and smears and Alexander turns linear with only a hint of sul tasto technique. Friedrich, who is remarkably understated throughout the disc, contents himself with unforced flams and bounces. Soon the reedist’s flutter-tongued obbligatos turn to repetitive split tones as the fiddler’s more legato multiphonics become spiccato. As the thematic material slows further, Alexander advances the piece with quick jettes and polytones.

On the turnaround the violist’s playing becomes staccato, as Smith’s double counterpoint picks up the string-suggested melancholy and begins moving in lockstep harmony. With the drummer/viola interplay suggesting the ruggedness of a Billy Bang-William Hooker session, the finale finds the non-percussionists advancing two different but complementary lines.

Other pieces finds the continuum coming from the viola rather than the rhythm section, whereas the uneven textures of “Variations in C”, which suggests some notation, has Andrews using a chamber music-like comely tone until abrasive tenor saxophone slurs and marital sounding drum breaks rupture the theme. It reappears at the very end, though the final few bars are lopped off to make a point.

The final track, with Coke, playing a bouncy piccolo-range flute, and evidentially replacing Alexander, is broken up into smaller sections. The drummer smoothes the beat to a light lope, Coke’s solo is made up of tremolo peeps and breaths and Smith creates his variation of Texas tenor honks and cries coupled with Coltranesque sound sheets.

For his part, on the other CD, except for the occasional baritone saxophone smear, Michalowski tries to avoid lower-pitched reed honking. Instead, as on “Raparossi” he’s more likely to emphasize aviary squeaks from his horn’s highest registers. Here this mixes with treetop trombone tones and squeaky fiddling. When plunger brass lines and reed honks intersect later on, Ilgenfritz strums his bass as Khoury somehow plays descending staccato surf music runs. Climax is a sustained series of deep-in-the-throat multiphonic cries from Weaver completed by irregularly pitched, almost ney-like reed textures.

“Krvilak” is a less-than-2½-minute exercise in scratching strings, jagged trombones blats and reed cadences, as if Anthony Braxton and George Lewis have made common cause with Leroy Jenkins and Sirone of the Revolutionary Ensemble. “Giuggio”, on the other hand, features power-picking from Ilgenfritz that allows you to hear his axe’s wooden properties, followed by flared string lines from Khoury, until the two meld for some broken harmonies that are almost pastoral in their completeness. With the horns squeezing out imperfect semitones, the effect is that of four instrumental lines competing against one another.

Irregular vibrated reed lines and glottal stops plus hocketing slurs and guttural brass blasts are also on show, along with ponticello explorations from the strings. Yet when you compare “Tauton”, BABARDAH longest track with anything on DIE FÄDEN, you note that unlike Andrews, Khoury never produces an ostinato, leaving that to the bassist, and while the Texans often reference jazz, the Michiganites are much closer to EuroImprov. This piece evolves from almost complete silence to ponticello squeaks, with colored air leaking from Michalowski’s horn. Later its difficult to decide whether it’s the violin’s staccato jumps or the sopranino’s segmented, oscillating whistle that imitates the sound of unraveling electronic waves. A credit to the band, even though it clocks in at 11 minutes plus, this track doesn’t seem any longer than the other shorter ones.

There you have it, two unheralded Free Music bands from the heartland, evolving at their own pace and both worthy of investigation.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Babardah: 1. Peliczaple 2. Nyicnyac 3. Rathi 4. Krvilak 5. Tauton 6. Rostador 7. Raparossi 8. Giuggio 9. Galumfuja

Personnel: Babardah: Sarah Weaver (trombone); Piotr Michalowski (sopranino, soprano and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet); Mike Khoury (violin); James Ilgenfritz (bass)

Track Listing: Fäden: 1. Faruq’s Tone Row 2. Variations in C 3. Waters Variations 4. Variations in A 5. Big Mess 6. 3 Eggs*

Personnel: Fäden: Alex Coke (flute)*; Carl Smith (tenor saxophone); James Alexander (viola); Jason Friedrich (drums)