Heinz Geisser/Guerino Mazzola Quartet

Black Saint

Heinz Geisser/Guerino Mazzola

By Ken Waxman
June 20, 2005

Switzerland has never had an overabundance of jazz musicians, let alone outright Free Jazz players. Also, because of the cantons proximity to larger countries nearby and similarity in names, those not familiar with individual musicians might think certain Swiss players are respectively German, French or Italian.

So how do you account for an iconoclast like pianist Guerino Mazzola? Now 57, he’s combined an academic career – having published 13 books and over 90 papers in the fields of math, topology, brain-research and computer-music – with uncompromising Free playing. Often unfairly compared with Cecil Taylor – as it seems are all pianists more advanced than beboppers – his touch is nimbler and his concepts often more cerebral than the American. With references to Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner in his improvising, Mazzola, who once described Irène Schweizer, his country’s best-known avant-jazz pianist as “a nice bebop player”, has steadfastly followed his own path since 1980.

For the past decade or so, his closet musical associate has been Zürich-based percussionist Heinz Geisser (born 1961), who is also a member of the Collective 4tet with Americans trombonist Jeff Hoyer, pianist Mark Hennen and bassist William Parker.

Someday and Chronotomy allow you to experience two complementary, but completely distinctive representations of their art. The first CD is made up of duo performances from gigs in Tokyo and Mexico City. The second, recorded in New York, adds Americans, violinist Matt Maneri and guitarist Scott Fields. In breath and multi-faceted coloration Chronotomy has a slight edge over Someday.

You can’t fault the kinetic risk-taking that characterizes the performance on Someday, it’s merely that the two seem hermetically sealed in their own sound world. Both performances are almost exactly the same length – a touch under 37 minutes – and one would need ESP to geographically locate either the Mexican or the Japanese performance.

Uncompromising, Mazzola begins the Tokyo-recorded title tune with note clusters and dynamic interface then alternates between staccato and legato phrasing. Here as elsewhere, Tyner and early Keith Jarrett references work into his upfront attack. Meanwhile Geisser lays back, breaking up the pianist’s overpowering arpeggios with the occasional cymbal slap and cow bell thwack. Variations turn speedy and voluble after about 10 minutes as wave after wave of high frequency chording vibrate the instrument’s nodes. Geisser responds in kind, using cross sticking to produce heavy door-knocking action, which brings out prestissimo chording from Mazzola, cascading waterfalls of sprayed notes across the keys with one hand and shattering counterpoint with the other. Moving into the penultimate minutes of the improvisation, the percussionist is more felt than heard as the pianist lets loose with unstoppable rhythmic patterns at a velocity so speedy that it almost becomes a blur – until finally, he reprises snatches of the exposition. Press rolls and patterning from Geisser help retard the tempo until both abruptly stop.

Slightly more rococo, “Tormenta de Tiempos” proves that the pianist is more song-oriented than Taylor. At least the ruffled tremolo of his intro recalls half-forgotten Broadway ballads. Soon enough however, the nub of the piece develops frenzied note clusters and intense cyclical patterns. Intoning darker bass notes are extended with pedal power as the drummer repeatedly slams his hi hat for emphasis. Letting each surging phrase ricochet, Mazzola unspools bravura syncopation that colors the piece still further, here hinting at Taylor’s higher-pitched attacks. Geisser interjects harsh press rolls and snare pounding, creating his own patterned syncopation that for a time has the pianist comping. Gathering his forces, Mazzola eventually begins spinning vast notes flurries that condense various themes into dramatic, impressionistic chords, and bringing forth marital matching band rhythms from the percussionist. A mutated “Pathétique” reminiscent phrase from the pianist makes the finale almost straight-ahead.

Expanding the combo by two – New York-based Maneri, and Fields, who now resides in Cologne, Germany – and recording almost two years later seems to have slowed down and relaxed Mazzola a bit. Considering the two Americans’ microtonal allegiance is less flamboyant than his approach may have muted his attack as well. Despite this, among the miasma of swirling phrasing that makes up the four tracks on Chronotomy, Maneri, a minimalist from birth, emerges as his chief collaborator or antagonist. Vaguely pushed to the back are the drummer and guitarist.

Another reason for the change in execution may be that the Sci-Fi definition of chronotomy is passing time at three speeds: hyper slow, life speed and hyper fast. On this CD, each improviser takes on each of these parts in turn.

Most intense demonstration of this tri-speed ability is the more than 27-minute title tune. Clumps of piano lines that soon speed up and diffuse characterize the tune’s exposition. As Mazzola’s circular arpeggio patterns intensify, so do Maneri’s quivering back-and-forth fiddle lines and echoing tones from Field’s guitar. Rarely does this triple counterpoint make a place for an occasional percussion resonance.

Irregular patterns unspool from Mazzola’s keys, as Geisser, eventually and quietly, accents the tune with bounces – and Maneri provides similar backing with flowing spiccato runs. Here, as on the other three pieces, Fields often seems to disappear into the mix. Peering out like Bugs Bunny from a rabbit hole, he’ll sound a curt phrase then, like Bugs again, vanish, only to reappear someplace else a few seconds or a few minutes afterwards.Midway through, the widening polyphonic interface from all concerned is given further sul ponticello emphasis from Maneri, along with dancing, hyper-kinetic phasing from the pianist. Accelerating prestissimo and higher-pitched, Mazzola almost reaches Taylor-like dynamics as the violinist’s sul tasto lines add a certain bulk to the output.

Yet the keyboardist’s individuality is asserted here in a series of downshifted, romantic interludes that allows him to play the role of Evans, with Fields creating slurred Jim Hall-like runs. Soon Maneri is providing tremolo vibrations and double stops for contrast, and Geisser is whomping his cymbals. As mid-range, impressionistic violin runs, slurred guitar licks and modal comping from Mazzola shift the mood, the polyphonic strands coalesce, with the four working their way down to a sentient conclusion.

“Elevate”, on the other hand, is built on higher-pitched piano cadences and a snaky fiddle line, with drums rolls and short thumping guitar licks providing the differentiation. Sul ponticello violin squeaks and wiggling piano chording join in turn as Maneri’s repetitive jettes and Mazzola’s cross chording is cut with an occasional plink from Fields. A swelling string line from the violinist ultimately encourages a variegated pulse from Geisser and different patterns from the pianist. Reverberations of various nodes move the four into uncommon interactions on the other tunes with odd man out shifting to and fro, and with each bringing singular techniques to form a polyphonic whole.

Although more unique note clusters and emphasis characterize Chronotomy, either disc can serve as an introduction to the uncommon art of Mazzola, his longtime musical partner and extra friends.