Winter Birds
Between the Lines BTLCHR 71203

Konnex KCD 5141

Variations on a quartet theme, the different strategies working bands put across depending on whether they’re involved in a live or a studio situation are illustrated by these CDs.

Recorded on gigs in Rochester, N.Y., Amherst, Mass. and Chicago, LIVE showcases extended five performances from the all-star Nu Band quartet that allow its veteran members extensive space in which to let loose. On the other hand, WINTER BIRDS captures the quartet of bassist John Lindberg, with as stellar a line-up, working in a studio date that followed 13 European concerts in 15 days. Playing nine of the bassist’s tunes and one written by flautist Steve Gorn, the CD recreates in a studio the tightness of the touring quartet

Although Lindberg is known as a founding member of the String Trio of New York (STNY) WINTER BIRDS reveals his more instinctive side that isn’t always notable in STNY’s chamber setting. Here he’s aided by brassman-educator Baikida Carroll, who plays trumpet and flugelhorn, always-inventive percussionist Susie Ibarra, who over the past decade has ratcheted beats for musicians as disparate as microtonal composer Pauline Oliveros and New Thing throwback tenor saxophonist David S. Ware.

Wildcard is Gorn. A jazz clarinetist and soprano saxophonist most of the time, he adds his elegant bansuri or virtuoso bamboo flute patterns to a coupe of tunes. Considering his timbres have been used by traditional South Asian ensembles and pop singers like Paul Simon and Richie Havens, Gorn’s ethereal tones add a certain otherworldliness to the compositions.

Powerhouse drummer Lou Grassi and bassist Joe Fonda, who have worked with nearly everyone on the so-called downtown scene, take care of the ever-shifting rhythms, on the extended originals on LIVE. Front-line, reedist Mark Whitecage and trumpeter and flugelhornist Roy Campbell, who move in circles around bassist William Parker, are easily a match for the Lindberg band’s trumpeter and woodwind player.

Beginning with five fast-moving miniatures, WINTER BIRDS allows Lindberg to show off his command of archaic slap-bass while the others surround him with sluicing soprano sax lines, hocketing near-baroque trumpet fills and lightly stroked percussion.

Similarly “Siladette Awakening” and “The Chicken Fix” revel in exotic texture and instrumental interface. Moderato, the latter mixes barrelhouse and freebop. Ibarra’s bounces and rolls back up Lindberg’s high-pitched resonation, whinnying runs from the trumpeter and hard-bitten notes from the soprano saxophonist. The former tune, written by Gorn, floats on irregularly pulsed drums and traverse strums from the bassist. Double- stopping and in double counterpoint, they extend a faintly exotic line over which the horns hang emphasized and blended notes like brightly-colored washing drying on a clothes line. Gorn’s multihued bamboo flute timbres show up most prominently on “Ether”, as his Carnatic-style resonation meet closely positioned, gamelan-like responses from Ibarra.

Fluttering bird-like melodies expended from the North Indian flute also play a part in “Resurrection of a Dormant Soul”, described as a composition of spiritual affirmation. Lindberg’s string snaps and sul tasto raps on the bass’s ribs and belly join Ibarra’s press rolls and cymbal taps to give the piece its initial percussive flavor. But after the bassist extends his bow angling for maximum sound variation, a contrapuntal Tarantella-type air is advanced by flutter-tongued clarinet and brassy trumpet. Gorn’s later switch from trilling and fluttering clarinet to more delicate bamboo flute doesn’t upset the dancing theme either.

Thematic in parts, the Nu Band’s creations include Campbell’s “Prayer, Contemplation and Meditation” and Grassi’s “Ballad of 9-11”. As heartfelt as the emotions may be from the brassman who leads the Third World-oriented Pyramid Trio, the former unfortunately drags on at too great a length. Harmon-muted trumpet tones and prosaic clarinet lines limit, rather than illuminate the theme. Even Fonda’s strummed guitar-like bass portion is too carefully measured.

Surprisingly – considering the subject matter – “Ballad of 9-11” comes off better. Sonorous arco bass and ethereal, rococo flute state the initial theme, giving way to a Campbell solo that moves from whinny, half-valve work to soft cries. Later Whitecage reveals a surprisingly smooth Benny Carter-like alto tone that finally roughens with slurs and overblowing. Extending a constant rhythm, the composer, in concert with Campell’s broken chords, directs the piece to a somber conclusion,

Except for an extended jape against the mendacity of the Bush cabinet on “Four of Them”, the other inside-outside pieces unroll in fairly standard form, with the horns marking the heads, followed by the tunes’ opening up for extended solos. On Whitecage’s “End Piece” for instanced, the drummer’s spectacular percussive romp could easily got him hard-bop gigs in the 1960s. In between a theme statement with treetop-high brassiness from Campbell and a final mid-range saxophone reprise, Grassi uses bass flams, cross-sticking, cymbal cracks and rim-shot elaborations to make his points. Multi-functional, he stokes the kit more than he pummels it.

Showpiece is the more than 17-minute “Like a Spring Day”, which seems to introduce shout choruses almost as soon as there’s a theme statement. Following flutter tonguing from the trumpeter on top of roistering and flapping drum beats, the composer condenses swooping bird-like slurs and trills and a touch of circular breathing into a burst of glossolalia. Fonda then advances the tune with double-stopped bowing, which skitters down to multi-tonal arco sweeps and bass note undercurrents. After he reprises the melody one more time with high-pitched strokes, the bassist slides down to mellow double-stopping, unearthing textures that sound like wet fingers rubbed against the side of a balloon. Conclusively, the piece is wrapped with a darting brass/reed unison that echoes similar dual strategies from Donald Byrd’s trumpet and Gigi Gryce’s alto saxophone circa 1959.

Impressive for it’s individual showcases, LIVE could have used more tightening and editing to make it better – but isn’t that true for most live recordings? More focused without being precious, WINTER BIRDS is an altogether memorable listen, overshadowing the other disc in comparison. Still either CD should appeal to listeners familiar with the work of any or all of the eight players.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live: 1. Like a Spring Day 2. Ballad of 9-11 3. End Piece 4. Prayer, Contemplation and Meditation 5. Four of Them

Personnel: Live: Roy Campbell (trumpet and flugelhorn); Mark Whitecage (alto, tenor and soprano saxophones and clarinet); Joe Fonda (bass); Lou Grassi (drums)

Track Listing: Winter: 1. BAM! Quatre 2. BAM! Cinq 3. BAM! Neuf 4. BAM! Onze 5. BAM! Sept 6. Winter Birds 7. Resurrection of a Dormant Soul 8. Ether 9. Siladette Awakening 10. The Chicken Fix

Personnel: Winter: Baikida Carroll (trumpet and flugelhorn); Steve Gorn (bansuri flutes, soprano saxophone and clarinet); John Lindberg (bass); Susie Ibarra (drums and percussion)