ROSCOE MITCHELL/TATSU AOKI

First Look Chicago Duos
Southport S-SSD 0112

CARLO ACTIS DATO & BALDO MARTINEZ
Folklore Imaginario
Leo CD LR 437

Like evaluating a foreign art film and a Hollywood blockbuster in a similar fashion just because both appear on celluloid, these string-and-reed duos are superficially analogous. Yet by the time the imaginary final frames appear you realize that the four musicians involved, despite using the more-or-less-same instrumentation and the same medium, have created two radically different productions. The irony for some is that the Europeans on FOLKLORE IMAGINARIO have come up with the buoyant, in-your-face, aurally Technicolor product, with the equivalent of the spills, chills and thrills of a mainstream film. In contrast, the sounds created by the Americans on FIRST LOOK CHICAGO DUOS are as low-key and meltingly chiaroscuro as the screen images of an independent, usually foreign language production.

First of all you must remember that Turin-born baritone saxophonist and bass clarinetist Carlo Actis Dato is the Jim Carey of contemporary Italian jazz. Although a member of widely-respected ensembles like the Italian Instabile Orchestra, he’s usually dressed in a colorful costume complete with hat. Contributing a sense of wacky abandon to any improvised situation, his highly rhythmic style encompasses as many tongue slaps and honks as Carey’s work includes pratfalls.

Playing Dean Martin to Actis Dato’s Jerry Lewis is the respected Spanish bassist Baldo Martinez. Someone who has in the past worked with Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and American bassoonist Michael Rabinowitz among others, his style often includes a strain of ethnic music. In a way this CD is a continuation of an earlier project where he improvised on folkloric themes from the North of Portugal and Galician traditional music from the north of Spain.

That music may have been presented like a National Film Board documentary. But with Actis Dato on board, herky-jerky cabaletta and Klezmer interjection, not to mention freak notes from both his horns turn this imaginary folklore on its ear, ending up with FOLKLORE IMAGINARIO perked up with slapstick implications.

On the American side, FIRST LOOK CHICAGO DUOS could be the aural equivalent of a cinematic profile of a quick change artist, thespian or not. Roscoe Mitchell, one of the founders of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, uses his collection of reeds and percussion to assume various roles on the CD’s nine tracks. His partner, Tokyo-born, longtime Chicago resident Tatsu Aoki, not only exhibits his prowess on the double bass, but also strokes and bangs complementary tones with his percussion implements.

On “The Journey”, for instance, it sounds as if Aoki is slapping a taiko drum as well as his bass strings, until the strings’ steady pulse turns to accompanying a long-lined tremolo section from Mitchell’s alto saxophone. When the reed work becomes more intense and shrill, Aoki pummels the drum again, producing irregular pulsations that match up with the saxman’s overblown multiphonics and circular breathing.

Overwhelmingly percussive, the concluding “Out” finds Mitchell creating polyrhythmic textures that seem as if they could come from shaken tam tams, concussive claves, vibrated steel drum and rattling metallic balls. Aoki sticks to a steady bass line, which in the tune’s centre section harmonizes with Mitchell’s legato flute modulations.

Elsewhere the saxophonist uses tough and textured double tonguing from his soprano to go up against forefront stretching and vibrating bull fiddle strings. Slinky ney-like trills are tried sparingly but effectively on other tracks, usually as counterpoint to Aoki’s rumble and bounce. Yet on “Festa”, the drum-like wallop appears when Aoki pats and pops the ribs and belly of his bass, eventually taking on dumbek properties to match Mitchell’s Arabic timbres.

Constantly intersecting and adapting new pitches, each man can provide the accompanying ostinato, and either can step forward as soloist.

The same equal partnership exists on FOLKLORE IMAGINARIO, but with the added impetus of the other CD’s chiaroscuro grey scale and muted pulsations replaced with eight tunes sonically decorated with shocking flashes of vibrant colors and buoyant interactions so quick and violent that they’re analogous to an action film’s car chases.

Playing eight tunes by Actis Dato and eight by Martinez, as opposed to Aoki-Mitchell’s set of instant compositions, the Euro improvisers figuratively hit the ground running with the first track, the bassist’s “Sospeita”. Built on complex rasgueado from Martinez that evolve into slap bass technique, Actis Dato responds with baritone saxophone snorts, squeals, squeaks and yells vibrated from the body tube. After spiccato turns and pops from the bassist, while the saxman accompanies him, they switch roles and Actis Dato snorts out irregularly pitched lines on top of Martinez’s slap bass ostinato.

“Vejo Elmer” and “Compay Segundo” try out different strategies with the former depending on Actis Dato’s pitch-sliding bass clarinet coloring in the chalumeau register, while the later commences with sombre-sided bowed bass lines and basement-deep smears from the baritone. The former includes enough contrapuntal and subtly colored notes climaxing in a series of shredded squeals and passing tones, that in cinematic terms it could be linked to a sensitive dramatic turn by a comedic actor. Yet once the method-acting is out of the way on Actis Dato’s “Compay Segundo”, a snaky half Klezmer-half Hindustani pulse appears. Does it represent the novelty of exotic belly dancing in the shtetl? Round waddling notes from the baritone’s mid-range meet bull-fiddle strums with even more jocular reverberations added as the coda.

It’s these effervescent impulses which characterize most of the tracks here. If Actis Dato isn’t yowling and smearing timbres in a cabaletta-style rhythm, then he’s producing tongue flutters and honks from the big horn that would make R&B saxmen blush. Martinez’s Andalusian beat includes slaps, slides and single-string pizzicato snaps as well as arco double- and triple-stopping. Contrapuntally the two echo each others’ phrases, like an awkward duo finishing each others’ sentences in a teen comedy. They also pause a few times during the improvisation to harmonize on a vocalization of the title on “Mandingo”, a technique often used by the saxophonist on other CDs.

Although the folklore implications of the session are expressed often, because of the dance-like complexion of many of the tunes, no matter how outside the solos go, there’s always a recap of the theme sometimes before the finale.

Whether you prefer your duos Hollywood frantic or art house cerebral, there’s much to like on either of these discs.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Folklore: 1. Sospeita 2. Ashanti 3. Compay Segundo 4. A boca da ria 5. Luna Park 6. Vejo Elmer 7. Festa 8. Mandingo

Personnel: Folklore: Carlo Actis Dato (baritone saxophone and bass clarinet); Baldo Martinez (bass)

Track Listing: First: 1. In 2. East Side Easy 3. Number Five Wings Place 4. The Journey 5. Glide 6. Dot 7. Journey for the Cause 8. Yoshihashi 9. Out

Personnel: First: Roscoe Mitchell (alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet, flute and percussion); Tatsu Aoki (bass and percussion)