Ward/Barlow/Fell/Noble

Help Point
Copepod Records

RARA Ensemble
Ora!
Zrec/Rara

By Ken Waxman
December 5, 2005

Superficially similar, these two unusual quartets are built around the talents of clarinetists – an instrumentation more common in 1945 than 2005. Yet while both the Italian RARA ensemble and the British band led by Alex Ward feature piano, double bass and drums as well, the results on these debut CDs herald an intriguingly individual identity for each.

Each of the Italians comes to RARA with impressive fluency and education in the jazz, New music and classical fields. Milan-based Bb, alto and bass clarinettist Giancarlo Locatelli and pianist Alberto Braida from Lodi both recorded with German bassist Peter Kowald and played with reed stylists ranging from American Steve Lacy to Wolfgang Fuchs from Berlin. Bassist Gianfranco Tedeschi, one of the curators of Rome’s improvised music festival, also composes for theatre as does Locatelli, while Braida teaches piano, harmony and improvisation as well. Drummer Fabrizio Spera is member of a variety of working bands with the likes of Fuchs and British saxophonist John Butcher.

Similarly the Ward Four can’t be undervalued. They includes bassist Simon Fell, whose large scale compositions have been as well received as his work with classic Energy Music trios, and drummer Steve Noble who started his career in jazz-funk bands and was involved in a few of guitarist Derek Bailey’s Company Weeks. Another participant in Company Weeks at an incredibly young age was Ward, yet unlike the others, he also played in a number of unabashed rock bands. So did and does keyboardist Luke Barlow, although he also composes so-called classical music.

Help Point identifies the brand of Barlow’s axes in the booklet – Rhodes, Oberheim OB3-2 – yet one of the most impressive constructs of his playing is that the rank electrical impulses aren’t exploited on the disc. His keyboard expertise allows him to imply samples that elsewhere would come from electric guitar or bass, organ or synthesizer, without also attaching the pernicious bluster of the fusion Visigoths.

Similarly comprehensive in their world of improvised new music, the RARAs bend their collective backgrounds to the eight instant compositions on Ora! While a soupçon of serial techniques appear – as they did on Braida and Locatelli’s trio CD with Kowald – the glowering intensity all four bring to the disc shield it from affectation.

“Antehac”, for instance the nearly 15½-minute lead-off track, quickly shakes off residual sonata or chamber music inflections and speedily takes on Free Music characteristics. Although the bassist and drummer limit themselves here – and many other places – to an accessory role, the snarling resonation from the clarinetist and the contrapuntal tipped dynamics of the pianist establish the quartet’s bona fides. With Locatelli’s dominance over the woodwinds as its crux, many of the tunes suggest a melding and augmentation of two of the best-integrated ensembles featuring British reedist Evan Parker – his trio with bassist Barry Guy and drummer Paul Lytton and another trio with pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens.

Here, as Spera produces some colorful cross sticking and Tedeschi measured pulsations, the clarinet lines become more irregular and the piano voicing more metronomic. Eventually legato chalumeau reed lines contract into individual bites before morphing into squawking altissimo, while in broken counterpoint, Braida first pummels the left- handed keys of the piano, then polyrhythmically constructs a double-timed complementary line to Locatelli’s tongue slaps and reed mastication.

Tedeschi and Spera get their due elsewhere, however. On “Adhuc”, Locatelli’s atonal cawing and bird of prey snarling is interrupted by a bass solo of regulated plucks. Meanwhile on “Per Via”, Spera’s rattles, stamps and occasional bass-drum rumble serves as a counterweight to Braida’s low-pitched palmed clusters and piercing false-register twittering from Locatelli, which materialize like the intermittent beeps of a clock radio. Pan-tonal allusions, concentrated patterns and note clusters bring to mind “Chopsticks” as much as Chopin; and Eric Dolphy as much as diatonic scales. By the finale, RARA’s swirling interface is distilled into characteristic voicing and dynamics.

Transcending their influences the band members create something uniquely their own, as do Ward, Barlow, Fell and Noble on their nine outlandishly titled selections.

“The Cronk” and “The Mumbles”, for instance integrate electronic imagery into a mostly acoustic output. On the former, Barlow quickly moves from guitar-like strumming to triggering jittery waveforms, after Ward first growls a straight line that turns to curlicue trills. As the clarinetist continues to sound out contralto staccato lines, tremolo fills and buzzing synthesized runs appear from the keys along with cymbal slaps and floor tom bounces from Noble.

More restrained, “The Mumbles”, features crossed pulsations and sine-wave flutters and signals from Barlow that eventually evolve into piano-style comping. Fell’s col legno jettes and the drummer’s cowbell raps and patterned rim shots help Ward moderate his speed-of-sound bird-like chirps that ultimately moderate to back-of-the-throat screeches and young animal squeaks.

Minimalist impulses are added to “The Noup” as Noble’s barely perceptible cymbal clanging make common cause with Fell’s arco continuum, until a looping synapse from Barlow develops into a duet of rubato resonation with the clarinetist. Ward twitters in a straight line then accedes to staccato multiphonics to meet the keyboard pulses. As the reed man flashes double tonguing, the drummer introduces powerful press rolls and the bassist concentrated sul tasto swipes that meld with Barlow’s pedal point. Summation involves Ward rotating intricate grace notes.

Contrast that group performance with “The Devil’s Head” and “Help Point Shut”. Organized around Ward’s skills on the wooden single reed – he has also recorded as a guitarist – the former begins with a vocalized tone on his part that slithers to chalumeau register, the better to mix with Barlow’s pulsating oscillations. As the plugged-in keys spew polyphonic rhythms, the clarinet turns to legato coloratura timbres. When the keyboardist rides the changes with harmonic fills, Ward overblows a more pressured passage that almost sounds like tots giggling. With the reed trills taking on a Klezmer-like tinge, Barlow’s wave frails reach guitar-like quality, Noble accents his rim shots and Fell strokes his strings. High-pitched reed whistles from Ward and sine-wave rasps from Barlow combine into a throbbing pulse that serves as the finale.

Fell, almost conventionally walking and Noble cuffing his cymbals are more upfront on “Help Point Shut”, as Barlow provide near-acoustic piano swirls and jabs. Attaining a measure of thwarted emotionalism, Ward structures a meandering melody of trills and vibrations as the drummer backs him with rumbling ruffs. Similar textures from the lower reaches of the clarinet added to mid-range bass pulses make up the coda.

Jarring when they deem it necessary and pliable when the music needs it, both quartets concentrate their influences into characteristic sound tracks. Both deserve a listen.