Featuring Howard Johnson
Guildwood GR 006

Several Lights
Delmark DE 561

Long the most neglected member of the improv brass family – at least since Wellman Braud switched from it to the string bass to meet the demands of Duke Ellington’s 1920s band – the tuba’s orphan status has improved over the past decades.

Because of such subterranean sound sponsors as Americans Howard Johnson, Bob Stewart and Joe Daley, and Giancarlo Schiaffini, Melvyn Poore and Carl Ludwig Hübsch in Europe – among many others – it’s now accepted as a solo as well as a rhythmic instrument. Modern tubaists have so extended the flexibility and range of the brass beast that it’s showing up with increasingly frequency on all sorts of sessions, such as these two. In fact, tuba suppleness is such that each quartet sounds completely unlike other.

Canadian guitarist Tim Posgate’s Hornband, for instance, adapts folks and rock influences to its bedrock brass band/jazz sound, which is further extended by the tuba – and baritone sax and penny whistle – of Johnson himself. Adding to the palate of aural colors, Posgate plays electric, acoustic and lap slide guitars plus banjo; Quinsin Nachoff – who has worked with American bassist Mark Helias – adds his tenor saxophone, clarinet and flute; and Lina Allemano plays trumpet.

SEVERAL LIGHTS is a completely different proposition. Encompassing 19 [!] different tracks and featuring young Swiss tubaist Marc Unternährer of Luzern – Lucerne to non German-speakers – hence the title, it’s firmly in the dissonant/New European music mode. Still it isn’t all bleak atonality, since the three young Chicagoans, who provide the other half of the band’s name, have strong jazz and improv backgrounds. Drummer Frank Rosaly has recorded in cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm’s trio and with alto saxophonist Dave Rempis. Trumpeter Josh Berman has also played with Rempis, while tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson has been part of the Treehouse Project Jazz Quintet and the free music Aram Shelton Octet.

Variations of EuroImprov take precedence on the CD however, probably because the multiplicity of tracks puts the focus on virtuosity rather than story-telling. Not that bravura skill isn’t on display, but with 11 of the tracks two minutes or less, extensive development is at a minimum.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the most memorable of the instant compositions are the longest. The more than 13-minute “Take the Place”, for example features a stentorian ostinato from the tubaist –extended with choked valve action that initially harmonizes with slurring purrs from the cornetist and saxophonist. When Berman unveils rough, metallic plunger tones, Unternährer rumbles along until Jackson counters with false fingering and split tones and Rosaly makes his presence known on ride cymbal. As the pressurized action builds up from the base – first tuba, then tenor, then cornet – the drummer’s press rolls presage a Berman solo. Chromatic and tremolo, the brassman’s bleats are shadowed by tuba blasts, then joined for polyphonic duets by Jackson.

Although the more-than seven minute “Walls” is mostly concerned with deliberate foghorn-pitched tuba swells played at moderato tempo, “Soon Enough” explores the contrapuntal and round-robin potential of the instruments. As flutter-tonguing Berman twists and turns his notes, Jackson slurs and honks with his bell keys and other low tone noise makers. Unternährer blurts great bubbling swathes of solid timbres beneath the hocketing higher-pitched horns, that sometimes move at such an accelerated pace that you fear they may collide. Climaxing with the cornet and sax squeezing tones in double counterpoint, Rosaly holds up his end with an occasional cymbal splash and rattling paradiddle.

Much of the rest sounds like crib note versions of larger works, although Berman does get a chance to show off a style based on foreshortened bent and cracked notes and Jackson’s response ranges from prickly versions of Ben Webster’s boudoir tenor style – think Archie Shepp – to light-toned trills plus wriggling honks and snorts. Not that any of his snorts could compare to the quivering earth-moving from Unternährer’s sputtering. Although his presence is intermittent, Rosaly seems to know exactly with what rhythm, and at which loudness and pitch, he can express himself.

Despite some contrapuntal expression from the horns and riffs that end up being tossed back and forth among the three, many pieces merely end without reaching a satisfactory conclusion.

You can’t say the same for the Hornband, which expresses itself in12 mid-sized chunks, all but one written by Posgate. Taking advantage of the doubling and tripling available from the band members, he also works out arresting arrangements to show the instruments off in less-than-expected fashion. That has it’s drawbacks too, though, since the uneasy thought rises up from some tunes that parts were parceled out to add sparkle to a pre-conception rather than arising spontaneously. Sadly there’s also at least one pedestrian track pushed along with folk guitar strumming, wimpy flute and an attempt at mellowness that turns to lugubriousness.

Luckily shortcomings like that are in the minority, in a session that announces its exuberance from “Hale Bopp”, the first track. It links R&B-style saxophone from Nachoff, a vamping, bluesy ostinato from Johnson, chromatic decorations from Allemano and clicking, distorted guitar licks that owe their origin to rock, but not their fealty.

Although his lead guitarist persona gets a workout on other tracks, Posgate isn’t limited to that style. On a couple of tracks he even uses his rock-inflected tricks to unexpected advantage. “On the Merry-Go-Round” features distorted echoing pulsations harmonized with warm clarinet tones, gravelly tuba growls and wah-wah trumpet. On Nachoff’s “How Post-Modern of Me” the guitar part mixes rock licks and electronica suggestions, the better to blend with scatter-shot tenor sax trills and tremolo trumpet lines.

More notable are the band’s multi-themed, multi-instrument, virtuosic displays. Penny whistle, flute and acoustic guitar set the pace for “50% Pure Wool”, likely written for Posgate’s sons. Together the finger picking and piping whistle sound more Eastern European than Québécois, especially when Allemano adds some freylach-style trumpeting to the mix. By the time Johnson begins braying his big horn, the piece has reconstituted itself as a children’s march.

“Martin Martin Martin” reaches triple counterpoint as Posgate’s bluesy steel string runs meet stentorian tuba vamps and squealing clarinet run. On top of flashing bottleneck licks, the trumpet then takes the lead expelling Trad Jazz wah-wahs, with Nachoff’s equally retro quicksilver trills serving as a coda.

Want something really retro? Try “‘F’ as in Fun”, where shuffling old-timey banjo frailing presages pre-modern accented trumpet lines and an undulating tremolo from Johnson’s big brass. Although the later juxtaposition of sweet flute and clangy banjo is a bit off-putting, the tubaist draws it together with a flutter-tongued solo.

The swollen brass’s natural melancholy is also put to good use on “Goodbye, Au Revoir”, a memorial to a departed relative, where Johnson’s pitch is coal mine deep and his tempo hearse slow. Rising tones to express grief with an unsteady banshee wail, the piece ends with the guitarist’s single string lines harmonizing with the legato horn section.

Posgate’s Hornband will no doubt appeal to those who want their versatility blended with levity, while the Chicago Luzern Exchange will attract followers who appreciate formalism and minimalism. Each adds another entry in the tuba’s burgeoning modern discography.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Featuring: 1. Hale Bopp 2. Quartier St. Roche 3. Martin Martin Martin 4. Rob Clutton 5. On the Merry-Go-Round 6. “F” as in Fun 7. How Post-Modern of Me 8. Goodbye, Au Revoir 9. Muddy 10. Pramulating 11. The Shape 12. 50% Pure Wool

Personnel: Featuring: Lina Allemano (trumpet); Quinsin Nachoff (tenor saxophone, clarinet and flute); Howard Johnson (tuba, baritone saxophone and penny whistle) and Tim Posgate (electric and acoustic guitars, banjo, acoustic lap slide guitar)

Track Listing: Several: 1. Slips 2. Five Handfulls 3. Three of Three 4. Skidding 5. One of Three 6. Troubles 7. Our Thing 8. Pedal Past 9. Soon Enough 10. Dos 11. A Little Paler 12. Fairly Fast 13. Walls 14. Take the Place 15. Over the Wire 16. Spend Your Life 17. Two of Three 18. Someone Came and Took Yours and Left You His 19. One-o-one

Personnel: Several: Josh Berman (cornet); Keefe Jackson (tenor saxophone); Marc Unternährer (tuba); Frank Rosaly (drum)