Chris Abelen

Space
BVHaast

Lucas Niggli Zoom Ensemble
Sweat
Intakt

By Ken Waxman
November 28, 2005

Be careful when you count the number of musicians on these sessions. For while Space may seem to be by a 10-piece band and Sweat by a 12-piece one, each disc actually features an established improv combo expanded with the members of a contemporary chamber ensemble plus one additional idiosyncratic soloist.

As a consequence of these expansions, the composer/ band leader of each disc – Dutch trombonist Chris Abelen on Space and Swiss percussionist Lucas Niggli on Sweat – have a fuller palate of textures, colors, pitches and rhythms available. Both CDs are memorable, although Sweat has a slight edge. The cause may be that it’s a studio session, whereas Space was recorded live. Or it may be that Ensemble Neue Musik Zürich (ENMZ) is a closer fit with the drummer’s Zoom Ensemble plus British soundsinger Phil Minton, then the Zapp! String Quartet is with the trombonist’s quintet and special guest, clarinetist Ab Baars.

More crucially, with only six compositions to interpret – one of which is 18¼-minutes long – the Niggli-lead group has enough scope to stretch, in contrast to the Abelen crew, whose improvisations are wedged into 13 tracks that are mostly three to five minutes in length. Additionally, the execution of many of the compositions on Space resembles that of certain comedy sketches on Saturday Night Live: They start off well, but skimp on a finish.

Consider, for instance, “Clean”, “AB” and the title track on Space. Despite the second tune having his initials, Baars’ a cappella squeals aren’t dominant enough to escape the delicate ascending harmonies from the Zapp four – violinists Jasper le Clerq and Friedmar Hitzer, violist Oene van Geel and cellist Emile Visser. Percussionist Charles Huffstadt contributes concussive metallic pulses, but the end result is strangely inconclusive.

Similarly, the string quartet modulates circling spiccato pitches, while the rhythm section of guitarist Corrie van Binsbergen, bassist Wilbert de Joode and the drummer proffer a pulsating line, on “Clean”. Yet, just when this combination seems poised to make a definite statement, the selection ends.

As for “Space” the composition, harmonic congruence from the strings, and pinpointed licks from van Binsbergen take up whatever room is left over from de Joode’s thick-toned interface. Then Tobias Delius contributes emotional tenor saxophone slurs that are then answered by plunger work from Abelen. However despite the double-stopping and steady beat, the climax is again inconclusive.

Other pieces show more development. “Coda”, which oddly enough is the CD’s second-to-last track, finds Abelen constructing a Gil Evans-like backing for his chromatic explorations. The Tilburg-born brassman, who apprenticed in the larger groups of Willem Breuker, J.C. Tans and Eric van der Westen, displays his command of shifting textures to fame the band members here.

As his trombone sounds grace notes in higher ranges, the strings gradually ascend in octaves to accompany him. Although at one point he departs from his usual legato tone to indulge in prolonged double tonguing, overall his expositions never go beyond the bounds of good taste – sort of like a modern-day Eddie Bert or Frank Rosolino.

Happily, he’s able to get the ZAPP string quartet to swing on “Orange”, but considering all have backgrounds as improvisers, this is less of a struggle than it would have been for arrangers Evans or George Russell in the 1950 and 1960s. That tune, a pseudo-march, is driven by a military-like fanfare from Huffstadt’s snare and a thumping pulse from de Joode. Clarinet trills and vibrating cross lines from the guitar soar on top.

Both strings and guitar are featured on “GO”, where pizzicato settings are interrupted by low-pitched reverb from van Binsbergen, whose variations on the theme presage a horn-heavy countermelody. Built on a series of sonorous pitches “My Tie” gives Delius a chance to use smears squeals and tongue stops as tart rejoinders to the strings’ swelling harmonies. His irregular vibrations poke holes in the quartet’s lyricism, preventing the tune from becoming saccharine – and he concludes with a horse whinny.

Finally, “On the Beach” allows Baars and Delius – both on clarinet – to weave polyphonic tones that meander, jump, circle and occasionally meld for double counterpoint, balancing above alternating pizzicato and arco string tremolos.

As the title suggests, it may have necessitated more perspiration, but the two ensembles hang together more on Sweat then the two mixed groups on Abelen’s CD. Even if Minton’s theatrical retches, hiccups and groans are an acquired taste, together Zoom and the New music sextet sound more comfortable than the trombonist’s crew.

That’s because the drummer, in an Ellington-like fashion, tailors his compositions to the individuals within the group. Slick trombonist Nils Wogram and guitarist Philipp Schaufelberger – in his less rock-oriented moments – have shown their adaptability on earlier Zoom releases, as has new member Claudio Puntin, a clarinetist on a technical level with Baars. ENMZ’s tubaist Leo Bachmann is versatile enough to have released his own solo improv disc, with the other members – violinist Urs Bumbbacher, cellist Stefan Tuth, pianist Viktor Müller, flautist Hans Peter Frehner plus Lorenz Haas on vibraphone and percussion – similarly adaptable and seemingly unaffected by snobbism that often infects so-called serious musicians.

“Run and Rush” and “Fever” provide example of Niggli’s architecturally complete compositions. They’re also ones that contrast markedly with those of Abelen’s which lack resolution.

On the first piece, for instance, a near-impressionistic interlude of strings and flute follows measured guitar runs. These undulating string arpeggios are interrupted by a guitar vamp, which joined by piano and vibes, develops into a swing riff balanced on Bachman’s snorting patterns. As Wogram’s chromatic solo unrolls on top of skittering drums and walking tuba lines, Minton interjects dog barks and other odd noises. Midway through is a contrapuntal interlude, featuring a twittering flute and the clarinet playing Spanish-tinged scales, with the rhythm section, beefed up with pizzicato-playing Tuth. Echoing resonations from Haas’s vibes set up the concluding variation that features a pounding rock-like drum beat, distortions and surf runs from Schaufelberger, choked blats from the boneman and the vocalist perhaps unintentionally parodying a Heavy Metal singer’s unintelligible yowls.

“Fever” – not Peggy Lee’s hit – provides even more scope for Minton’s vocal ventriloquism following an instrumental exposition made up in equal part of rubato trombone lows, menacing, low-frequency piano chording, pastoral fluting and sul tasto strings. Displaying three of his many voices, Minton successively intones like a growling bass-baritone, as if he was a bel canto counter-tenor, and with strangled Donald Duck-like spittle. Soon he’s intoning in triple counterpoint with himself, as first stretched sul ponticello strings – deliberately dissonant – enter, followed by splayed guitar licks, rattling thumps from Niggli and pedal point bluster from Bachmann. Unexpectedly the composition shifts gears as perfectly formed guitar finger-picking from Schaufelberger, cross patterning dynamics from Müller and fowl-like quacks from Puntin’s clarinet loosen up and distort the sounds. Encompassing zart string-directed chamber harmonies, the last section reaches a conclusive crescendo.

In many ways, the other compositions serve as a series of postludes to “No Nation”, the 18¼-minute anthemic suite which opens the CD. Beginning with a compendium of pulses, sine waves and percussion accents, the initial moderato theme appears after a couple of minutes. First expressed with a hearty neo-bop, double-tongued solo from Wogram, the line expands with sonorous timbres from Bachmann and tick-tocking bounces and ruffs from Niggli. Eventually it opens up for a crooning vocal from Minton, the Perry Como of the avant garde.

Tension and release, impressionistic and improv lines define the composition from then on as plunger cries from the trombone, hard rock flams from the drummer and floating guitar runs contrast with the simple, sweet Cabaletta-like air that emanates from the ENMZ. Bachmann’s reverberations provide the continuo, matched by clanking cymbals and rim shots. As the tune’s shape alters, Puntin’s feathery double-tongued clarinet line appears to be injecting fralicher phraseology into the mix. With tuba tones, and clattering percussion swaggering in harmonic counterpoint finally superseded by throat gurgles, Bronx cheers and pseudo-scatting from Minton, the composition concludes with frailing hyper-kinetic cadences from Schaufelberger and a broad clarinet glissando, recapping the theme to end on a frantic note.

Examples of musical cross-fertilization from different genres and largish aggregations, both CDs offer intriguing compositional possibilities, although Sweat has more of a positive resolution.