HERB ROBERTSON NY DOWNTOWN ALL STARS

Elaboration
Clean Feed CF042 CD

Organized to bring out the best qualities of trumpeter Herb Robertson’s more-than-48-minute composition when it was performed at the Vancouver (British Columbia) Jazz Festival, the NY Downtown All Stars is no misnomer.

Each of he players has a long history with one another, and all – with the exception of drummer Tom Rainey – have frequently recorded as leaders. Alto saxophonist Tim Berne has been had his own bands since the early 1980s, around the time he first met the drummer and the brassman, both of whom have played in his combos. Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, who has a long-standing affiliation with another downtowner, violinist Mark Feldman, has worked with Robertson since the mid-1990s. As for bassist Mark Dresser, now teaching at the university level in California, his associations on both coasts run the gamut from multi-reedman Anthony Braxton to pianist Satoko Fujii – and everyone in between.

Not as well known as he should be, Robertson, who plays trumpet, cornet, mutes and megaphone here, has lived in both Europe and the United States and contributed distinctive brass tones to ensembles ranging from British bassist Barry Guy’s orchestra to the New Winds with flutist Robert Dick and woodwind player Ned Rothenberg to drummer Gerry Hemingway’s combos.

An all-out player and writer, ELABORATION is a particularly memorable showcase for his talents. Made up of tutti, thematic passages, as well as places where the quintet divides into different duos and trios, it uses all the variables implicit in the quintet’s playing without every lapsing into a string of flamboyant solos. Voiced so that the ensemble sounds as if it’s much larger than a mere five pieces, equal attention is focused on each member of the band.

With an exposition made up of wiggling blocs of reed tones and low-frequency piano cadences, “Elaboration” soon segues into a duet between Courvoisier’s chording and Robertson blowing plunger tones. Double-tongued, smeared vibrations from Berne mix with a walking bass line from Dresser, interrupted for col legno swipes, succeeds the initial duet. As the piece develops, the bassist’s double stopping and prepared piano scrapes and soundboard clinks and clicks make room for whining megaphone textures and reed tongue slaps.

A demarcation of protracted silence one-third of the way through finds the pianist soloing with recital hall correctness until understated drum bounces and harmonized trumpet and alto saxophone lines cut the tempo in half. Eventually triple counterpoint, call-and-response from the horns and double bass develop, until a martial figure from Rainey redirects the piece towards patterning piano and growled brass. This continues as a sub-motif beneath the major articulated theme inflated by Courvoisier’s vamps that literally shake items inserted in the instrument’s speaking length.

Berne’s repetition of the thematic figure here in an almost tenor saxophoneish timbre contrasts nicely with Robertson’s piercing plunger elaboration of the same motif. The pianist’s extended shifting dynamics coalesce into a solo that finds her working from one side of the keyboard to the other, sonorously darkening the lowest quadrant, then subsequently giving way to widely spaced growls and whinnies from Robertson’s cornet. Around them are calm-shattering reedy trills and tongue slaps from Berne and Rainey producing bare-handed conga drums-like bounces and ruffs.

Preparing for the resolution, the distinctive instrumental textures in the concluding section divide into sluiced glottal punctuation from the saxophone, mouthpiece tongue kisses from Robertson, spiccato lines from Dresser, rumbles and slaps from Rainey and flashing harmonic patterns from Courvoisier. Building up to a tutti finale, both the trumpeter and pianist append a single note coda.

Robertson may be helped by his friends here, but his composing and playing shape their contributions into a imposing whole.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Elaboration

Personnel: Herb Robertson (trumpet, cornet, mutes and megaphone); Tim Berne (alto saxophone); Sylvie Courvoisier (piano and prepared piano); Mark Dresser (bass); Tom Rainey (drums)