Agustí Fernández & Mats Gustafsson

Critical Mass

Agustí Fernández
G3 Records/Sirulita

Agustí Fernández Quartet
Lonely Woman
Taller de Músics/Sirulita

By Ken Waxman
February 27, 2006

Without trying to propose a rigid maxim, it’s evident that much of the best improvised music has come from individuals whose ethnic group was or is removed from the mainstream.

Jazz, of course, was invented by oppressed African Americans, and since that time its most accomplished practitioners have usually been players from Black, Jewish, Italian or other minority backgrounds. The situation is a little more muddled in Europe, but interestingly enough the first universally acknowledged non-American jazzer was a Roma, guitarist Django Reinhardt. While setting up a hierarchy of victimology is silly, it’s instructive to consider, for example, that the two most acclaimed Spanish pianists are Catalan, not majority Spaniards. Tete Montoliu (1933-1997) was a masterful pop-bopper as his many sessions with American sidemen attest; while today, Barcelona-resident Agustí Fernández is similarly accepted in so-called avant-garde jazz circles.

Since the late 1990s Fernández has recorded with such international experimenters as American bassist William Parker and British reedist John Butcher, and is now a regular member of larger ensembles led by saxophonist Evan Parker and bassist Barry Guy. He hasn’t neglected the Catalan scene however, and works with Barcelona-based groups like Trio Local.

His most recent CDs affirm this geographical duality. Critical Mass matches him with Swedish baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson; Lonely Woman is a quartet session with three fellow Barcelona residents, one of whom is also in Trio Local; while Camallera is one hour plus of extracts from an all-day [!] live solo concert he gave in Girona, Spain.

Like other self-aware improvisers of any stripe, Fernández likely doesn’t characterize his playing as paramountly reflecting Catalan concerns, but, especially on the solo CD of piano and prepared piano creations, percussive Latinesque inflections appear. It’s the same for Lonely Woman which adds a different time sense to eight Ornette Coleman compositions. Nonetheless, cognizant of European geography, it’s interesting to contemplate who the legitimately “hot” player is, and who the legitimately “cold” one is on Critical Mass.

Ascending from a series of tongue slaps and ratcheting keyboard shuffles, the duo CD’s 10 tracks are abstract, but not cold. Throughout, Gustafsson’s work is as much about lung tissue and constricted throat pressure as the percussive and linear qualities of his tenor and baritone saxophone expositions. Often combining the subtle shading of a Butcher with the balls-to-the-wall concentration of a Peter Brötzmann, the saxophonist melds his note patterns into an output that’s almost organic. Improvising cross patterns in his wake, Fernández produces unique tambourine-like rattling pressures, which encompasses stopped nodes and other conceptualized prepared piano movements, as well as octave jumps, contrasting dynamics and strummed chords from the keyboard itself.

On a selection like the nearly seven-minute “4 Critical Mass 6:53”, for instance, tongue percussion, glottal punctuation and altissimo cries on Gustafsson’s part meet a fantasia of vibrating plucks and slides plus concentrated string agitation from Fernández. Elsewhere, while dramatic interchange results from the contrast between saxophone snorts, growls and snarls and abrasive rumbles and fortissimo keyboard reverberation, lingering, prettier patterns are on show as well. “5 Critical Mass 4:46” highlights near-silent impressionism on the pianist’s part that turns to bowing across the wound strings, the better to complement the short breaths of colored air leaking from the saxophone bell.

Singularly, Gustafsson pumps out spetrofluctuation, key pops, volcanic sputters and glossolalia, with each exposition sharper and louder than the next. Then while playing solo on the penultimate track, Fernández varies his narratives among rolls and rumbles and extends it with pedal work; plucks the internal strings with mini-pincers or other instruments and rubs them with a coarse cloth. Subsequently, polyphonic chords appear when he hammers strings with a mallet while simultaneously rattling the keyboard.

There’s plenty of scope for these and other extended techniques on the six selections that make up Camallera. This tour-de-force adapts prepared piano strategies and electronic interface to an acoustic piano’s the output. Sporadically, in fact, it appears as if the strings and keys themselves are too limited for his expression, so Fernández creates new patterns by hitting the pins, bars and screws of the action so that it resonates as well.

Expressing himself through node-stopping and partials, almost every tune vibrates with unique designs created as the stentorian resonance from balanced tension is disrupted. Entire passages echo with tremolo slides, others sound as if a mini cymbal is resting on top of, and shivering along with, whacked wound strings. Still others unfurl from almost spinet-like delicacy to Spanish-tinged fantasias, which while improvised, suggest baroque inventions. Bottleneck scratches and scrapes that stab the piano’s wood as well as the strings are part of another approach.

This divergence among varied dynamics finally resolves itself in the final quarter of the program. Here cascading waves of pedal-expanded, bass-inflected notes vibrate the sound board and bottom board along with the appropriate sonic sources, but gradually lose their power as dissonant spaces liquefy, making languid timbres as hushed as they were initially strident – finally shrinking first to mini clusters then single notes.

Techniques exhibited on the preceding discs are held in check on Lonely Woman as Fernández shares space with three other players. While some may marvel at circumstances where interpreting Ornette Coleman lines become the most conventional sounds from a trio of discs, Lonely Woman is memorable for another reason. It appears as if the Catalan musicians are able to inhabit the eight tunes through the similar background they share with the Fort Worth, Tex.-born Coleman. Not only is there commonality in the Spanish-inflected themes, but through provincial stubbornness expressed by minority Americans or minority Spaniards.

Latinesque voicing creep into the pianist’s solo and duo work and when on “Latin Genetics” the quartet takes off on a bolero rhythm following internal piano string scraping and tongue slaps from saxophonist Liba Villavecchia, the resulting speedy piano chords and swift bass solo from David Mengual heighten the Hispanic suggestions in Coleman’s innate primitivism.

An associate of Fernández in Trio Local, soprano and tenor saxophonist Villavecchia is also a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music via a Fulbright scholarship. Bassist Mengual often plays in more mainstream settings, with one of his CDs recently voted Spanish Jazz record of the year. German-born drummer Jo Krause teaches at the jazz and legit conservatories in Barcelona, having spent years before that in Amsterdam.

There’s no extroverted Dutch zaniness here – although the Spaniards did control the Netherlands for a while – but unlike the other sessions, there are examples of mix’n’match musical play acting. At one point, on alto, Villavecchia seems to be channeling Benny Carter; on “What Reason”, the balladic breakdown with piano, bass and drums makes the performance as dreamy and atmospheric as one by the original Bill Evans trio; while “Mob Job” features a dynamic stride excursion with repetitive chordal patterns from the pianist.

More serious are treatment of “Unknown Artist”, which has been recorded under different names, and the extensive – 13 minutes plus – run-through of Coleman’s best-known piece, the title tune. Starting with a polyphonic yet cohesive statement, the former is quickly broken up into disparate parts – twittering alto lines, double flams and rebounds from the drummer and cascading chords that feature two-handed contrasting dynamics from the pianist. Eventually, Villavecchia sounds the familiar theme, which elsewhere is known as “Dancing In Your Head”, backed by keyboard arpeggios and focused rebounds from the drummer. Krause augments his role with ratcheting cymbal concussion, alternating with bass drum accents, until the saxophonist recaps the head.

Designed as a major statement, “Lonely Woman” begins with a plucked, deep-toned bass intro that sounds as if it migrated over from Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song”. Layering broken chords, the altoist and pianist expose the familiar line as Krause rumbles and ruffs in an understated manner. Split tones from Villavecchia on tenor saxophone give way to a delicate low-frequency recapitulation of the theme from Fernández that moves from single notes to clusters of tremolo cadenzas as if he was Glenn Gould decoding new meaning from a Bach concerto.

Following variations on the theme from each player, the coda turns abstract; consisting of Villavecchia snorting and squealing and the pianist carving successive slivers of the melody into minute pieces until it disappears.

A major stylist in a variety of settings, these CDs show how Fernández adapts to different circumstances and makes you wonder what other musical surprises could arise from minority Catalonia.