Frode Gjerstad/Paul Hession


Frode Gjerstad/Kevin Norton
No Definitive

Frode Gjerstad/Borah Bergman
Rivers in Time

By Ken Waxman
April 4, 2005

Norway’s standard bearer for free improv since the mid-1970s, saxophonist/clarinetist Frode Gjerstad is a committed player who has maintained a singular musical stance in a Scandinavian country whose jazz fans would much rather follow the glacial modulations of ECM style reedists such as Jan Garbarek.

About five years ago Gjerstad was finally able to put together a big band, and then a touring trio of local players, but this trio of noteworthy, recently recorded duo sessions are reminiscent of his earlier isolated situation. Not that they’re compromises in any way. Thrown back on his own devices, early on Gjerstad made common cause and established playing relationship with convivial non-Norwegian improvisers like the late British drummer John Stevens and Chicago traps man Hamid Drake plus bassists William Parker from New York and the late South African bassist Johnny Dyani.

As versatile a percussionist as Stevens was in his day, Leeds-based Paul Hession is the reedist’s partner on MayDay. Having worked with a variety of ferocious woodwind players in the United Kingdom including tenor saxophonist and bassoonist Mick Beck and baritone saxophonist George Haslam, the drummer easily holds his own on the six spontaneously created tracks here.

No Definitive, on the other hand hooks up Gjerstad with New Jersey percussionist Kevin Norton, whose experience encompasses leading his own band, providing the pulse for Anthony Braxton’s groups, and backing other strong reedmen like London’s Paul Dunmall and New York’s Louie Belogenis. In contrast to Hession’s drums and percussion outing, Norton plays mostly vibes on this CD, with excursions into the resonances provided by bells, gongs, cymbals and other offbeat percussive implements.

Wild card – as he is in most contexts – is New York pianist Borah Bergman, who connects his idiosyncratic modus operandi to the Norwegian’s alto saxophone and clarinet playing on Rivers in Time. Quirkier than the other duos – and as striking as are most meetings with the opinionated New Yorker – the CD is a mano à mano reunion between the pianist and the saxman, who recorded as part of an unconventional quartet in 1997. On this disc however, it’s Gjerstad who must be ready with split-second responses to the game plan of a keyboardist who has already butted heads with masterful woodwind players as different as Haslam and Braxton, Germany’s Peter Brötzmann and Britain’s Evan Parker.

Dealing with the reed-percussion duos first, MayDay is almost traditional jazz. Traditional Free Jazz that is, with the two players spraying notes and tones over six tracks in improvisations that range from mere high-energy fulfillment to a dense, near electrical charges.

Probably the most distinctive track is “Only Warmer”, which finds Gjerstad’s shrill coloratura clarinet timbre tumbling to foundation-scouring chalumeau tones in an instant. As the reedist vibrates and draws out his sounds as if his horn was made of silly putty, Hession chimes in with rat-tat-tat tattoos and stick rolling on drum tops. When the drummer moves the tempo down to moderate thumps, Gjerstad’s lower pitches sound as if his notes are literally being strained through the semi-viscous cork and brass of the horn before escaping from the bell. After the drummer’s wire brush pings produce elongated pauses, Gjerstad begins viciously spraying discordant patterns – eventually pushing Hession to inverted sticking on his cymbals.

Even quicker, “From A Day” could be a performance by an early Cecil Taylor/Jimmy Lyons/Sunny Murray trio — sans CT. Grainy alto sax lines angle from protracted split tones to curled, unattached nodes, as Hession’s rumbles and rolls pushes the two further into the sort of Klangfarbenmelodie that literally takes your breath away.

Here Gjerstad’s pitch-vibrated bent notes meet up with Hession’s spectacularly well timed ruffs and rolls. Soon the altoist is using flattement and spetrofluctuation to sideslip into other keys before undulating a sequence of irregular sounds from his diaphragm. These screeching, between-the-cracks cries are tautly built up with stressed accents and individual flanged notes. The drummer may tighten and loosen the springs on his snares for variance, but the entire performance seems all tension and no release.

Hession does trigger resonating rebounds to gradually release tension elsewhere, however, adding to his collection of cross sticking, hollow bass thumps, nerve beats and gyrating single-notes tub-like echoes as he works up the scale. In contrast, Gjerstad’s has no fear of flutter-tonguing or catapulting simple Aylerian rounds that are vocalized into almost human cries.

“Sometimes”, the finale, is also the climax where the reedist’s shrills and doits allow him to extract timbres with his tongue and embouchure to savor, roll them around in his mouth and refine them. Meanwhile Hession appears to be rotating objects on his drum tops and scraping a drum stick across a ride cymbal to produce matching bird-like chirrups. Finally together, the two lighten the sonic overflow, finishing with sensuous understatement.

Gjerstad’s meeting with Norton is less frenetic since the percussionist’s vibes and cymbals lack the resistant capability of Hession’s full kit. On many of the six long tracks, in fact, it often appears as if the vibes cushion and filigree of little instruments knit together a multi-colored tapestry on which to better display the reedist’s extended techniques.

This is first apparent on “Improvisation II”, which is mistimed on the sleeve – it’s almost 11 minutes long, not a shade fewer than 5½. Taken staccatissimo, the piece features deep-throated squeals and asymmetrical flutter-tongued vibrations from Gjerstad’s clarinet joining irregularly reverberated notes from the vibes plus erupting cymbal tones. When the reedman introduces a seemingly endless collection of shrilling, multiphonic screeches, Norton splatters rebounds and flams from his snares and bass drum. Then he offers up a bravura display of maraca shakes, bell pings and a texture that sounds closer to a marimba’s tone than what vibes usually produce. A 30 second coda finds him back at the drum set as the reedist continues squealing on what may be either clarinet or saxophone.

“May be” is more than conjecture, since each of these FMR CDs appears a little weak in documentation. Although Norton is only listed as playing vibraphone here it certainly sounds as if other percussion is being used, while Gjerstad, listed as playing “saxophones” on both CDs with the percussionists, is most likely also improvising on Eb and Bb clarinets along with his trusty alto.

Furthermore, although the glottal punctuation he uses on “Improvisation VI” makes it seem as if he’s playing a tenor saxophone with a cold, he hasn’t worked with the larger horn for a few years. Extended techniques probably allow the timbres to deepen as he produces jagged split tones. Higher-pitched, wider and fruitier tones are definitely from the alto. Fittingly, these tongue slaps and lip smacks cause Norton to bring out four mallets, resonating a carillon-like tone with strident metal bar action.

Soon enough, Gjerstad’s watery snorts and shouts dissipates into moderato, pinched sounds that resemble what you’d hear from a violinist playing sul ponticello. These crooked reed bites encourage Norton to cross stick on more parts of the regular kit –making it appear as if his flams, ruffs and drags are in the Elvin Jones school. A final section slows down to showcase pseudo bugle-call-like reveille from the saxman, although Norton’s press rolls are anything but military. A postlude adds double-timed vibe patterns to meandering colored air blown leisurely through the horn.

Wide intervals from the clarinet and reed-biting slurs and doits from the saxophone figure in other pieces as do carefully weighed and accented multiple tones from the vibes. The reedist’s slithering uneven squeals are often given added strength from arching mallet crescendos.

All variations are on show with the almost 17-minute “Improvisation IV” including quadruple tones echoing from metal bars, tongue slaps and tongue stops. The vibist’s ringing, reverberated patterns are sometimes joined by rim shots, press rolls and ratcheting on unidentified percussion. And every so often Gjerstad creates double counterpoint with Norton’s singular New music style vibraphone modulations. Later on, Norton keeps the bottom nailed with accelerated snare paradiddles and cymbal friction as Gjerstad shoots upwards with slurred obbligatos and pitch variations.

Antithetical to the percussion duos, Rivers in Time features two solo tracks by Bergman and one by Gjerstad as well as five duets. Most impressive is “Exuberation”, the pianist’s nearly 9½-minute solo where you can almost see one or another of his arms snaking crab-like across the keys to the opposite side as he creates a complete secondary line in counterpoint with the first. Between the lightly balanced skitters and cascading chords, his output resembles a mutation of Cecil Taylor’s and Willie “The Lion” Smith’s styles.

As for the duos the most memorable are “Trolls part 1” and “Trolls part 2” plus the title track.

On the first appearance of “Trolls” Bergman come across as if he’s using a mechanized player piano, recorded at 33 and 1/3 and played back at 78 rpm. As he buries both of his hands in the highest parts of the treble clef, Gjerstad squeals as if he’s playing a penny whistle. His slurs are unique enough so that’s it’s difficult to ascribe them to either saxophone or clarinet reed. Pitchsliding, the pianist then jumps octaves with metronomic timing, splashing every last note, node, overtone and vibration out of the pummeled keys. “Part 2”, the shorter companion “Troll” is just as frantic, except that Gjerstad’s slurred counterpoint definitely comes from an Eb clarinet. He scoops out polyphonic low-pitched tones and altissimo shrieks with equal facility as

Bergman’s high frequency vibrations flash beyond arpeggios, octaves and phrases, taking the properties of dense multi-hued syncopation.

Gjerstad’s reed output is grainier and more violent on the almost 14-minute title track, weaving together irregularly vibrated feints and siren-like buzzes into piercing and barking passages. Bergman is also at full power from the beginning, operating triple-timed arpeggios and high speed chord patterns. Signaling every single note with cross armed and locked hands, he introduces extra overtones and vibrations in both treble and mid-range timbres. You can hear him clipping the hard ivory of the keys. In response the saxman overblows almost to the edge of hearing, wiggling out irregular phrases and localized single notes

Suddenly in the tune’s last section, Bergman outputs a series of broken chords that suggest a high-octane, 21st Century version of mechanized piano speed. Gjerstad’s slurred vibrations then decelerate into a few muted snorts as the pianist abruptly cuts off his tremolo voicing.

Object lessons in how he confronts and accommodates each of these musical challenges, these CDs demonstrate Gjerstad’s skill that has allowed him to become a major voice both in his native Norway and aboard. All are worth finding.