Albert van Veenendaal & Esmée Olthuis

Stripes & Spikes & Strikes

Nils Wogram & Simon Nabatov
The Move
Between the lines

By Ken Waxman
January 30, 2006

Recorded duos between one horn player and one pianist have been celebrated since Earl Hines’ and Louis Armstrong’s “Weather Bird” in 1928. But the key to their influence is making sure that the orchestral qualities of the keyboard don’t overpower the contributions of horn players, who, after all, can only rely on a combination of breath, valves or keys.

Comparing a recent CD by alto saxophonist Esmée Olthuis and pianist Albert van Veenendaal of the Netherlands with one by German trombonist Nils Wogram and Russian-American pianist Simon Nabatov underscores the pitfalls involved. While both are commendable efforts, Wogram’s and Nabatov’s strategies more easily come to fruition than Olthuis’ and van Veenendaal’s, so that the 71 minutes of The Move appear more enjoyably shorter than the touch over 59 minutes that Stripes & Spikes & Strikes takes to revolve.

One of the causes may be concentration of effort. Stripes & Spikes & Strikes consists of 17 sound wedges, varying in length from a maximum of just under 8½-minutes to a minimum of 36 seconds, with most in the two- to three-minute range. Conversely, there are only seven selections on The Move, with most longer than 10 minutes. Duration doesn’t necessarily create great improv, but it usually gives players sufficient time to develop their ideas.

Although van Veenendaal relies on variety of techniques and preparations to expand his keyboard palate, while Nabatov’s standard technique is more expansive – as could be expected from someone who began playing piano at the age of three – there’s no complaint with the dexterity of either. Regrettably though, it’s evident that Wogram is more inventive with his three valves and a slide than Olthuis is with her many keys. Perhaps her lyrical style, influenced by non-Western musics and displayed in the Drumless Dog trio and the Tetzepi bigtet, demands more concentrated backing then just a piano can supply. For his part Wogram, who was a prize winner before he was 20 – he’s 33 now – is comfortable playing solo, in duo with fellow German trombonist Konrad Bauer, with a variety of bands, including several of his own, Nabatov’s quartet and Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli’s Zoom. He also teaches at the Lucerne music conservatory.

A teacher, workshop leader and multidisciplinary festival organizer, van Veenendaal composes for theatre and dance companies, works in many aggregations including an exceptional piano trio and describes his music as “pictorial” because of its cinematic character. Unfortunately it would seem that there are no feature films on this CD, merely short subjects, almost exclusively at moderato tempo.

For instance “Woodstock’s Birthday Party” – either written to honor the rock festival or the bird in the Peanuts comic strip – is no more than three minutes of the pianist strumming sharp chords as if he’s playing a dobro, with the reedist expelling timbres that could come from a harmonica fighting a bad cold. Another of her tunes, “Experimental Dips in the Surf (For Dick)”, has a title that’s nearly lengthier than the track itself. It turns out to be a slight, romantic interlude of persuasive Paul Desmond-like alto lines sailing over high frequency piano chording. Even van Veenendaal’s compositions such as “Terra Firma” evolve into little more than a unison contrapuntal invention, a speedy intermezzo with silent movie accompaniment chords from the pianist and repeated, cascading slurs from Olthuis.

Ricocheting from these extremities, Olthuis is either lyrically posturing, with orotund and rotund arpeggios or busy transforming a multiplicity of rhythmic split tones and staccato triple-tonguing into jagged lines. Responding in part, the pianist stops and hits his strings at the centre node for additional vibrations, uses tool pressure to add percussive timbres, and sometimes responds to the altoist’s sputtering treble tones with what sounds like flapping cardboard manipulated among the strings.

Only a couple of times is there sufficient scope to see what could have developed between the two players, and surprisingly, both are Olthuis lines. “Esmita” for instance, builds on an upsurge of stately undulating chords from van Veenendaal that run into snorting glissandi runs and longer circular slurs from the saxophonist. The final variation expands into a dense, stretched out phrase repeatedly sounded as a climax.

‘Yeast” matches metronomic chords from the piano with growling, bass clef irregular vibrations. Later, tough, portamento slides outline a well-spaced counter melody, with Olthuis shrilling a curt postlude.

Boasting ample space on their CD, Wogram and Nabatov still only involve themselves in experimental techniques if this advances the dialogues. Considering the pianist can turn from chamber music-like pauses and layering to triple harmonic, almost boogie-woogie poundings in an instance, and the boneman’s stylistic command is on the same level, these extensions slip seamlessly, into the improvisations. Compare this to the saxophone-piano duo on the other CD, which waves a metaphoric flag whenever either departs from the expected.

Even the less-than-seven minute, Wogram-composed title tune moves from tarantella-like splattered syncopation from Nabatov at the top, to a percussive Spanish tinge mid-way through, as Wogram maneuvers his purring tones to a Lawrence Brown-like muted malleability, eventually combining with the pianist for a recap of the head. Here and other places both performers cycle through several implications, styles and genres without abandoning the kernel of the extended improvisation.

Nabatov’s nearly-17-minute “Herbie and Pierre”, for instance, extends this aural character acting to near feature film length as both players dip in and out of various musical persona. Sonata-like, feathery keyboard voicing set up the exposition until it slows down to Ur-romantic basso portamento. Wogram’s entry is delayed until more than one-third of the piece has sounded, and then his harsh braying expands into double counterpoint as he meets the pianist’s hard chording. Elaborating a bluesy line with plenty of wah wahs and staccato phrases, his near-tailgate impressionism forces Nabatov first to harder pummeling, then to gentle variation on the initial theme. Reaching a rapprochement with the trombonist’s trilling grace notes for the finale, three faux Dixieland staccato versions of the concluding phrase – separated by pauses – are trotted out as a coda.

Elsewhere the unfolding cooperation moves through buzzes and trills from Wogram and layered octaves and counterpoint from Nabatov. Just as the trombonist seems to scrape emphasized textures as much from his lungs as his lips and throat, the pianist’s keyboard command is such that the mental compartments that open to bring forward allusions to, say, Ragtime, show tunes and impressionism within a few bars of one another, proceed through his fingers so speedily that they quickly disappear, rather than being emphasized.

Craft masters Wogram and Nabatov have created one of the most satisfy duo sessions in a while with The Move. As for Stripes & Spikes & Strikes, differently configured CDs have confirmed van Veenendaal’s talents as one would hope Olthuis’ other outings feature her strengths as well. Here’s hoping that this unsatisfying date was just a temporary misstep.