Flowers You Can Eat

Nickendes Perlgras
Meat Hat

By Ken Waxman
January 23, 2006

With the notion of regular working groups seemingly as fanciful as the tales of the Brothers Grimm, reedist Michael Thieke, like many other players of his generation has been forced to improvise in more than just his solos.

Living alternately in the Berlin and Rome, Thieke, 34, who plays alto saxophone clarinet and alto clarinet, is a member of many groups that straddle the approximate boundaries of Free Jazz, Improvised Music and New music. His best-known association is with Gebhard Ullman’s clarinet trio that also includes Jürgen Kupke. Evidently secure sharing space with other reed players – other bands he’s in feature Alessandro Bosetti or Kai Fagaschinski – two of his newest affiliations find him as the only reed player in a trio situation.

Equally notable, each CD offers up an opposite view of his dexterity. Nickendes Perlgras’ Meat Hat emphasizes the brisk, brassy qualities implicit in a woodwind when it’s voiced with trumpet and drums. Moodier, with Thieke partnered by a guitarist and a bassist, Hotelgäste’s Flowers You Can Eat is also tinged with electronic implications.

The reedist recorded with German, percussionist Eric Schaefer and Berlin-based, Seattle native, trumpeter Michael Anderson in 2002. Together, they make up Nickendes Perlgras. Alternately, Hotelgäste features the Düsseldorf-born reedist interacting with two other North Americans, but younger Canadians this time. Both now living in Berlin, they’re graduates of Montreal’s McGill University music program and have played together for a dozen years. Bassist Derek Shirley has also worked with Australian flutist Jim Denley, while guitarist Dave Bennett plays in pop and improv bands.

Even though it’s shorter – 38¼ minutes to Meat Hat’s 48¼ – and both are fully improvised, Flowers has the slight edge. Made up of only six instant compositions, the three players have more scope to investigate the music’s nuances then is available to the different trio on the other CD’s 16 [!] tracks. More to the point, 10 of Meat Hat’s improvisations are in the terse one- and two-minute range, with only one allowed a sustained five minutes. Conversely, with only one tune shorter than three minutes and one almost 14, ample opportunity exists to develop an interface on Flowers.

Not that anything is in-your-face. Dense timbres, sonic juxtapositions and structural quiet are as much a part in the tunes as clearly defined instrumental sounds. Most encompass single finger guitar string taps, lengthy expelling of colored air from the horn’s body tube plus intricate buzzed double bass vibrations. Many times the vibrations are reminiscent of Onkyo, or near-silent Japanese reductionist sounds.

The near 14-minute “Sleepy Lady” for instance, seems to float on an unexpected convergence of finger-picked Mississippi blues lines, the hiss of reed-expelled colored air and near ring-modulator clanging. As the picking becomes more regularized, it nearly vanishes into rubbed oscillations, clicking pulses and curved squeals. Transmogrified into rumbles and buzzes, intermittent flattement and irregular vibrato from Thieke’s reed mark time with low flutters and interference rumbles form the stringed instruments. Before Shirley rubs sul tasto and sul ponticello crackles from his strings, snickering reed timbres introduce the steady echo of what sounds like a draining car motor. Eventually the mushrooming drone is superseded by electronically produced thumps that dissolve into silence.

With the reedist also listed as playing zither, these additional string textures may add to the ruffled and rumbled pulsations that characterize the session. Bennett adds to them by rasping his six-strings below the bridge and banging his fretting hand on the neck as clarinet and arco bass harmonize. Yet among the crescendo of hissing amp timbres and resonant bass pitches, insect-like reed squeaks or colored noise clicks confirm that Thieke remains engaged enough to contribute specific textures.

You don’t have to be as cognizant of instruments’ extended techniques on Meat Hat, since as early as the initial track Schaefer and Thieke showcase so-called legitimate tones. Well, more accurately these are the legit tones you’d hear both in the concert hall and the night club. That’s because the drummer’s rambling semi-march tune that introduces the CD has him playing with Baby Dodds-like clattering toms and snare press rolls, while the clarinetist exhibits an a fluid texture that’s ultimate genesis was with pioneering Johnny Dodds of the Hot Five.

Still, Classic Jazz allusions are more felt than heard. As a matter of fact, except for an outburst of Keith Moon-like paradiddles and flams from the drummer on Thieke’s “Erich (für Erich Fried), the allusions are more toward Ornette Coleman’s initial quartet with cornetist Don Cherry, or the LP on which John Coltrane played with that cornettist. Snorting, long-lines from Anderson and an intense Trane-like alto saxophone line even show up on “Für Jimmy Giuffre”, although the American clarinetist would probably feel more at home with Hotelgäste than this band.

Clanking drum pats, cymbal slaps, trilling reeds and trumpet grace notes often coalesce on these jaunty tarantella-like anthems. But longer tracks with different tempi could have provided more variety. For instance, “An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces” [whew!], may offer a great wiggling clarinet line, fan-belt flapping percussion and some strained Don Cherry-like licks from Anderson, but the piece is almost over in the time to takes to read the title out loud

Flashes of fanciful triplets and plunger growls from the trumpeter, alto clarinet ostinato and woody chalumeau licks from the reedman and cymbal patterning and bass drum bounces from the drummer may impress, yet each vanishes in the foreshortened time frame. The few times the trio opens up the tunes for call-and-response horn vamping and cross handed stick work from Schaefer are also the most memorable.

Undoubtedly Thieke and his associates have many CDs ahead of them and more likely than not Nickendes Perlgras will find an alternative to the micro tunes on which it’s so far fixated. Similarly it will be worthwhile to note what Hotelgäste does in a longer recital displaying a variety of moods.