Vinny Golia Quartet

Sfumato
booklet notes for Clean Feed CF 036CD

Texas-raised trumpeter Bobby Bradford has long been associated with idiosyncratic reed players. Most people know him as the brassman in an important — but little recorded — version of Ornette Coleman’s Quartet in the early 1960s; others recall his long partnership with the late clarinetist John Carter with whom he recorded a series of memorable, interrelated LPs in the 1970s and 1980s.

Just as noteworthy however has been his decades-long collaboration with multi-woodwind player Vinny Golia, live and on record, the most recent of which is displayed in glorious fashion on this CD.

Like Bradford, with whom he hooked up with in Los Angeles, Golia is a non-Californian who has adopted the Golden State as his home. Bronx, N.Y.-born Golia, who is also a visual artist, is famed for his impressive command of nearly every member of the reed family — more than two dozen and counting when last heard. He’s also a doer, who from his base in Beverly Hills — an address known for anything but musical innovation — has nurtured, employed and recorded scores of young and/or under-appreciated creative improvisers from all parts of the North American West Coast.

Drummer Alex Cline and Angelo-turned-Brooklynite bassist Ken Filiano, featured on this CD, are two of those musicians. Besides impressive work in other contexts, both have been part of various Golia groups, ranging from combos to big bands, for at least two decades. Sfumato, the CD, named for a painting technique coined by Leonardo da Vinci and used in his master works such as the Mona Lisa, is a particularly fine example of this mature quartet’s interactive art.

The disc was recorded in Lisbon, just before the band participated in Jazz ao Centro - Encontros Internacionais de Coimbra - 2003, a festival that takes place in a location two hours drive north of the Portuguese capital. Obviously pumped for what proved to be an enthusiastically received performance, the band members give their all on Sfumato, which features nine of Golia’s distinctive compositions. It also provides the composer with a peerless showcase in which to demonstrate his prowess on sopranino and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet, G piccolo and contrabass flute.

Sfumato, the visual arts term, is mutated from the Italian words for smoke and blended. The procedure overlays translucent layers of color to create perceptions of depth, volume and form — blending these attributes so subtly that there’s no perceptible transition between one and another.

Visual artist-turned musician Golia obviously grasps and values that style, and musically he utilizes it on the compositions here. Many are built on attractive blends between brass and reeds, while extended string and percussion techniques frequently add to the available palate.

Longer compositions such as “Transition of Power” and “All Together Now” are particularly fine examples of this. With space available, the reedist can utilize the timbres of more than one horn in sequence, without upsetting the sfumato implicit in the compounding of Bradford’s often half-valve work and his own reeds, not to mention the astute brushstrokes — in the drummer’s case literally — applied from Cline and Filiano.

“Transition of Power” for instance, features Braford’s grace notes flirting with exotica so that it sounds as if he could be playing a radung or Tibetan trumpet. Meanwhile, on top of a bass and drum overlay, Golia contributes contrabass flute lines — alternating parts with the trumpeter. His later soprano saxophone solo take its cues from mid-period John Coltrane, exhibiting slinky, Arabic pigmentation, without resorting to shrill tones. Together, Cline and Filiano contribute daubs of polyrhythmic counterpoint, until the horns once again meld into a single brush stroke to take the piece out.

“All Together Now”, another definition of cooperation, features hocketing bass clarinet timbres, sul ponticello bass lines and double-timed grace notes from the trumpet. Applying pointillistic techniques, the players slide from double, triple and quadruple counterpoint to passages featuring broken cadenzas. Especially notable are the intimations of military bugle-like tattoos from Bradford and echoing, cavernous sluices from Golia.

Just as da Vinci had his irrefutable influences as an artist so do the band members as musicians. While Golia’s initial playing opportunity was with Anthony Braxton, echoes of the influential Coleman Quartet and the initial New Thing era turn up often, especially since he’s working with Bradford in a quartet situation.

Unsurprisingly because of the title, this stylistic tick is most apparent on “That was for Albert Phase 3” and “That was for Albert Phase 5”. But with no one playing either tenor or alto saxophone the links to Albert Ayler and/or Coleman aren’t that obvious. The later tune is a demonstration by Filiano of subtle but spectacular advanced arco and pizzicato work, an extension of what had been attempted by Coleman bassists — and Bradford band mates — Jimmy Garrison and David Izenzon in the 1960s. Oddly though, Golia’s floating flute line seems more related to the work of the almost forgotten Giuseppi Logan, while it appears that Bradford is mimicking Donald Ayler’s intentional primitivism on the first version of the song. No one, however, could mistake Cline and Filiano’s work for that of Milford Graves and Gary Peacock from years past.

Interestingly enough, “NBT-take 2” also has Coleman Quartet echoes in its irregularly voiced call-and-response twitters and textures from the horns. But with Golia emphasizing the metallic quality of his sax and Bradford’s soaring brass voice more serene in maturity now that he’s at almost 70, than it was with Coleman years ago, in truth this quartet sounds nothing like the Coleman combo.

In fact, that’s what most distinguishes Sfumato from other CDs and makes it so memorable. It isn’t a retread or a tribute to any one musician or style, nor is it an attempt to create currently fashionable sounds. Instead it’s an object lesson in how painterly positioning of each member’s overlaid color contributions can produce a sonorous session whose individual attributes blend subtly into a complete whole.

Ken Waxman

Toronto

December 2004