Creative Sources

By Ken Waxman
November 7, 2005

With such a supposedly limited palate one would think that the differences among microtonal sounds would be slight. Yet as these French-oriented, reeds-and-strings instances demonstrate, lumping together all lower case sound generators is the equivalent of confusing Chicago style and New Orleans style traditional jazz.

Aeroliothes’ quartet improvisations reflect the talents of the true first generation of Continental Free Music players. Post-jazzers, they demonstrate how the bravura emphasis of Free Jazz can be mutated into something unique through collective improvisation.

A (musical) generation younger, the four players on Vasistas have benefited from the experiments of their elders to the extent that they don’t feel compelled to fill every space as Lazro/Doneda/Hoevenaers/Nick four do on their CD. Influenced as well by Onkyo or Japanese reductionism, Denzler/Guionnet/Kinoshita/Unami’s CD seems to replicate as many silences as sounds.

It does help that two of the players here are actually part of the Tokyo Onkyo scene. Violinist Kazushige Kinoshita and laptopist/guitarist Taku Unami have recorded internationally with other reductionists such as Greek cellist Nikos Veliotis and British bassist Mark Wastell. French alto saxophonist Jean-Luc Guionnet and Swiss-born, Paris-based tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler, who together make up the horn section of the Hubbub quintet, fill out this band.

As for the atonal chamber music of Aeroliothese, the saxophonists featured on it are two of France’s most celebrated and cerebral players. Chantilly-born alto and baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro went from being a teenage infatuation with mainstream jazz to playing Free Jazz and finally embracing absolute music. Now he collaborates with dance and theatre groups and works with others such as American multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee and French-Vietnamese percussionist Lê Quan Ninh. Another trio featured him, Ninh and Brive-born soprano and sopranino saxophonist Michel Doneda, Aeroliothese’ other horn. Also involved with linking improv to other art forms, Doneda also works with actors, visual artists, film makers and, most notably, the Basque singer Beñat Achiary.

NOHC, another of Lazro’s strings-and reeds groups, features violinist Michael Nick, who is also present here. Academically trained, he has composed in both the so-called serious and jazz idioms for dance and choir. Cellist Laurent Hoevenaers from Neuilly-sur-Seine, rounds out the quartet. Another player who moves between notated and improvised music, he also works with bassist Claude Tchamitchian, and paradoxically, a collective featuring two different members of Hubbub.

Unlike Vasistas, which consists of one 67-minute track, the other CD divides the touch-over-48 minutes concert into five sections. But with titles such as “Les Scintillement or “sparkling”, “Extenuation” or exhaustion and “La Porosite” or “being porous”, suspicion is that the names were added after the fact. Most textures on each amalgamate into a common mass, with few individual tones. What is apparent however is the pronounced cooperation that goes into each creation. At the same time, though, you can also clearly hear each individual instrument.

On the solo front, although Lazro’s commitment to Free Music didn’t preclude him from recently recording with American jazzers, bassist Joe Fonda and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, he never indulges in the sort of tonal archeology that seems to infect other big horn wielders. Instead he and Doneda take turns expelling half-muted cries, accelerating tremolo tones and pitch-sliding polyphonically. Tongue slaps, chickadee peeps, screechy tones and reed barks are also part and parcel of their playing. Sometimes the two unite for elongated, sonorous explorations. Elsewhere they conjoin with metallic, vibrating split tones.

Not that Nick and Hoevenaers are any way back-up players. When the strings aren’t sawing out jagged, concentrated lines, their circular pulses meld and undulate in unison, stripping away the upper partials of vibrating nodes, shielding the pieces from unnecessary melodiousness. Individually, the violinist often relies on spiky portamento, while the cellist adopts legato arches, at points extended with hand percussion tones from the instrument’s side and back.

Eventually the four build up to climatic segments on “L’Extenuation” and “La Porosite”, the final selections. On the first, baritone sax growls and pronounced fiddle runs spin until a kazoo-like, dissonant tone – from Doneda’s sopranino – blares, and subsequently combines in double counterpoint with barks from Lazro’s horn. Modulating to trilled arpeggios, first Doneda interrupts this unison drone, then the other saxist follows suit pouring overblown split tones, loud tongue smacks and body tube echoes into the mix. As the diffuse lines concentrate, the strings respond with sul tasto motions.

Reflecting the malleable textures of the improvisation, as well as the title, the final selection finds dissonant string nodes and spiraling reed thrusts bubbling every which way. Amalgamating into squirming amoeba-like sound textures, the four instrumentalists explore pitches from the sub-basement to the attic, concluding with a thin alto saxophone trill.

In sharp contrast to Aeroliothes’s writhing sound concentration, appreciating Vasistas is somewhat akin to birding. You have to be on your mark to hear the often-split-second instrument textures before they vanish into the underbrush of unrelieved stillness.

Frequently exposition builds from a single reed spit or an understated sul ponticello or sul tasto brush with a bow. Instrument identification is even more difficult with these single pitches that appear and vanish among the acres of silent musical real estate. Sometimes you sense rather than hear the notes. Laptop beeps express some individuality, as do dog-like yelps from Guionnet’s alto saxophone as well as Denzler blowing across his tenor saxophone mouthpiece. Additionally, Kinoshita’s individual squeaks or pecks often run counter to these irregularly vibrated sax ripples.

Climax of sorts arrives in the last few minutes of the composition as the silences between sounds minimize. Like actors taking their curtain calls at a production’s end, each player then displays an individualized finale: a ghostly laptop pulse from Unami, a prolonged violin slide from Kinoshita, vibrating tone and a mouthpiece kiss from one saxophonist and cross-blown whistling from the other.

Both quartets prove that restricted tinctures don’t necessarily mean that improvisation or ideas are narrow as well. But the listener will have to decide for himself or herself whether probing stillness for long periods to reach musical fruition, or concentrating on nearly exhausting, cathartic tone spinning has more appeal.