Urs Leimgruber/Jacques Demierre/Barre Phillips

ldp – cologne

La Fourmi
Creative Works

By Ken Waxman
September 25, 2005

Apart from a single mainstream session in the late 1980s, Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber has dedicated himself to outright reed texture exploration for many years. This tendency intensified once the reedist moved full time to Paris in 1988, immersing himself in rigorous performances of notated works as well as developing an all-inclusive approach to soprano and tenor saxophone improvisation.

Now with an individualistic style established, he is as involved with composition, played by the likes of the ARTE Saxophone Quartet, as contemporary improv with partners such as French bassist Joëlle Léandre and American pianist Marilyn Crispell.

La Fourmi and ldp – cologne are excellent representation of his singular work, with one highlighting his Swiss connection and the other his association with musicians from elsewhere. Recorded in Cologne, Germany, the later CD partners Leimgruber with Swiss pianist Jacques Demierre and American bassist Barre Phillips. The pianist, who also writes about music, has worked with improvisers ranging from Léandre to mainstream pianist Martial Solal, while the bassist’s 30-year plus tenure in France makes him at least an honorary European. Hearing a so-called “drummer-less” trio and knowing Phillips’ association with reedist Jimmy Giuffre in the 1960s, some may link ldp to the American clarinet’s similarly constituted trio. Close listening should dissuade them of the notion – the group’s sound is heartier, heavier and less precious than anything done by the Giuffre3.

Similarly, La Fourmi recorded around six weeks after ldp in January 2004 in the saxophonist’s hometown of Lucerne, may include Irish-born, Swiss resident Christy Doran on guitar and devices, who founded the seminal electric jazz/free music group Om with Leimgruber in the 1970s. But this CD is no fusion reunion. More cerebral and more concerned with diminutive tones ands textures than any OM product, the give away is the presence of percussionist Fritz Hauser.

Basel-born, and Leimgruber’s closest musical associate in a variety of trios and quartets, like the saxman, Hauser moves among the multi-media, notated and improvised worlds. Unlike the skin beaters who have populated Doran’s jazz-rock bands such as New Bag, Hauser never resorts to a shuffle or a backbeat. He’s dedicated to color not pulverize the sounds. Leimgruber’s and Hauser’s analytical approach to improvisation profoundly affects Hans-Peter Pfammatter – the young Swiss pianist, keyboardist and electronic sampler from New Bag – who completes La Fourmi’s quartet. His wave form oscillations here involve dissonance and texture tinting, and are far removed from pop electronica.

That said the final seven untitled tracks which make up the second set of live theatre performances on La Fourmi are preferable to the first 10 that comprise set one. Overtone and textures fall into place more easily, perhaps as the result of the four having experimented on a wider and longer soundscape at the beginning.

Certainly at the start Leimgruber displays a legato, almost-Paul-Desmond- like soprano tone, that mixes with flat-picked, flanged guitar patterns, plus rattled bounces and bell ringing from the percussionist. Shattering cymbal tweaks and shimmering sine waves from Pfammatter’s knob-twisting then help the reedist’s stretched undulation to shred into shrill, squeaky timbres, backed by single-note picking from Doran and culminating in repetitive, dense electronic interface from the keyboardist.

Still the variegated tone has so taken on a distinctive identity, that when curt clicks interrupt Leimgruber’s shredded split tones and pedal distortion from Doran, you’re not sure whether to ascribe it to a toy piano sample triggered by Pfammatter or a tubular bell expansion from Hauser’s kit. Eventually, the primitive-sounding chicken-scratch guitar licks and squealing reeds peeps are transmutated into a Space-Age liaison by cross-modulated fills from Pfammatter’s pseudo church organ tones.

Setting up an exit strategy and a penultimate tonal variation, sandpaper textures from the percussionist, intermittent squeaks from the saxophonist, and an electronic hissing presage a final ramp up of the instant composition. Encompassing circular breathed high-pitched textures from Leimgruber, a buzzing bass line from Doran, double-quick flams from Hauser and cross-handed keyboard note flickers, the piece decelerates to faint space ship-like aural signals.

In contrast to the relaxed postlude that distinguishes set two, set one is involved with each man feeling out the other three’s musical strengths and weaknesses. Idiosyncratic and strategic techniques and patterns are on display – the better to make common cause. Polyphonically, Leimgruber’s resonant aviary vibrations and Hauser’s manipulation of unselected cymbals are included in a strategy defined by Doran’s distorted arpeggios and Pfammatter’s keyboard striations.

One climax is reached mid-way through, when the guitarist’s hardening note patterns begin to list towards jazz-rock, but are taken further afield by the Free Music allegiance of Hauser and Leimgruber. As the drummer offhandedly hits his ride cymbal and hi-hat and the saxophonist introduces concentrated, repetitive trills, finger picking stops being merely busy and veers towards resonation.

As a barking squeal exits Leimgruber’s horn, Pfammatter’s responds with archetypical, hollow key pressure as if he’s chording sharp modulated signals, but with the electricity cut off. Joined by echoing tones from the guitar, the backing track approaches stop time, only to sew up the diffuse, contrapuntal patterns.

To the accompaniment of side band thumping that could come from triggered electric drums or a keyboard setting, the reedist’s irregular, high-pitched twitters reach a point of diminished tonal colors and fragment into a dense low-key whistle.

Consisting of three equally matched intellects from the band, the atmospheric ldp – cologne boasts odd composition titles as well as fine improvisations. Poignantly, all three bearing the weight of “The Rugged Cross”, is a characteristic display of this acoustic trio’s distance from the electro-acoustic quartet. Harsh sweeps from Phillips’ bottom strings and flat- handed palming from Demierre negate the need for a percussionist. Serpentine irregular pitches from Leimgruber soon smack up against portamento chording from the pianist and spicatto actions from the bassist. As the saxophonist’s trills, slurs and overblown harmonics start to resemble the cries of an agitated flock of migrating bird, quickly unfolding bass clef patterns from the pianist bond with the overtones, finding a shape in the amoeba-like mass of chording

Leimgruber’s triple tonguing causes Demierre to pillory his keys with pressure so unbending that the soundboard, capotes and bottom board wood seem to echo as much as the keys. Among this rough interface, the saxophonist’s scratchy multiphonics eventually turn to protracted altissimo squalls followed by tongue slaps and groans. Yet gentle legato stops from the bassist moderate the others’ tone explosions and herd them to a quiet finale.

Metaphorically titled, the more than 17½ minutes of “You Can’t Grow Old Again” should convince the listener that despite similar instrumentation, ldp is no Giuffre3 wannabe. Forceful where the other trio was temperate, this band combines the intricacy of the Giuffre3’s communication with a rough strength of all-out playing. Here Demierre widens his attack with full-force, high frequency cadences, Leimgruber blusters macho tenor saxophone glottal punctuation and Phillips uses col legno sweeps to dynamically augment his tremolo actions.

Constantly bowing and double stopping for additional heft, the bassist moves from sul ponticello layering to resonating bass line thwacks, while still allowing enough aural room for grainy tongue stops and intensity vibratos from Leimgruber and a piano strategy that involves stopped actions and objects rolling within the key frame. Phillips too seems to have inserted sticks horizontally between his strings to produce rougher multiphonics, with the saxophonist’s cadences of hollow-tunnel whistles sound as if the coarse tones are being scraped from metal and ligature rather than the reed.

Matching the almost identical metallic properties of the piano and bass strings, the saxman then uses side-slipping chirps to transform the pumping bass string jettes and piano key patterning into backing percussion for his double-stopping vibrations.

High intensity cooperation demonstrated here continues through to “Applegate Spark”, the almost 13-minute final track. Tongue slaps and split tones from the reedist join with organic patterning from the pianist that evolves to clipped single notes as the bassist plucks and pulsates his strings. With Leimgruber’s flutter-tonguing to stabbing intensity, and Demierre shaking and rumbling high-frequency bass force, Phillips’ sul ponticello tremolos become so piercing that they sound as if they’re severing strings as he plays.

As twittering squeals from the saxophonist joins with shuffle bowing sweeps from the bassist and dynamic, uncoiling patterns from the pianist, each man is revealed to be creating his part in outlined symmetry.

A quartet CD and a trio CD give you two chances to investigate how one reed innovator evolves strategies to fit dissimilar improvisational situations.