Michel Pilz Trio

Arbor
Shaa Music

The Ganelin Trio Priority
Live in Germany
Auris

Stefan Heidtmann
Hay Que Salir Andelante
Shaa Music

By Ken Waxman
April 24, 2006

Distinguished by his rhythmic sensitivity in outside contexts with Manhattan experimenters such as trombonist Steve Swell and guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, Cologne-based drummer Klaus Kugel’s profile is more catholic in Europe.

Part of the co-op Syntopia Quartet, he’s also a go-to percussionist for many far-sighted band leaders, since Kugel can be counted on to complement other players’ work and the leader’s vision. Consider these disparate CDs on which the percussionist assumes disparate identities. Versatile, he’s equally at home with the cubist grisaille of Luxembourg-based bass clarinetist Michel Pilz’s project; the Baltic-Jewish phantasm of keyboardist Vyacheslav Ganelin’s CD; and the freebop allusions of Cologne-based pianist Stefan Heidtmann.

Veteran Pilz, whose Free Jazz associations go back to trumpeter Manfred Schoof’s pioneering 1968 quintet and a subsequent membership in the Globe Unity Orchestra, has dedicated his life to mastering every nuance of the bass clarinet. Nonetheless, on Arbor, it’s Kugel’s tempo and rhythm prodding, and the bowed and plucked subtleties of bassist Christian Ramond, a former associate of trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, which dab primary colors onto the reedist’s monochromatic canvas.

Most conventional of the dates, Hay Que Salir Andelante celebrates Heidtmann’s tour of Mexico. Notwithstanding that, the presence of tenor saxophone elder statesman Gerd Dudek, who played with Mangelsdorff and Schoof early on; as well as trumpeter Reiner Winterschladen, who is involved with Trance-Groove sounds as well jazz; plus Syntopia bassist Dieter Manderscheid, saddles the nine tracks with more contemporary than Latin inflections. It also means that the drummer concentrates on his freebop chops.

Unlike the other all-German productions, Kugel’s Teutonic rationalism makes him odd man out in the Ganelin trio. From the evidence on Live in Germany, it appears that the keyboardist’s fondness for orchestral schmaltz, prominent before the original Vilnius-based trio dissolved in 1987, has been reinforced since his move to Israel and the availability of advanced Western synthesizers. Additionally, Lithuanian soprano saxophonist Petras Vysniauskas’ admixture of ethno-folk, jazz and New music characteristics in his solos, is often as extravagantly grandiloquent as the keyboardist’s interface – although powerful enough to resist Ganelin’s blandishments. Luckily though, Vysniauskas and Kugel both also play in the Baltic Quintet – with trumpeter Winterschladen – giving them a concentrated low-caloric blocker to Ganelin’s artery-hardening musical fare.

Classically trained at the Cologne Conservatory, pianist Heidtmann turned to contemporary jazz and New chamber music in the 1990s. As technically perfect as the playing is on the CD, the pianist’s compositions and arrangements don’t bespeak innovations. Despite a stellar cast, the verdict seems to be 1990s neo-con: German edition.

Although Winterschladen occasionally elaborates brassy smears and Duedek vibrates split tones and squeaky multiphonics, these spiky highlights are exceptions to the rule. Most of the time themes modulate contrapuntally with the horns outputting brassy rubato timbres that are then decorated with cross-handed arpeggios from Heidtmann, which drift between the tough pumping of Bud Powell and the feathery voicing of Bill Evans. Veteran Dudek may be honored with “Ballad for G.”, but his line construction scarcely varies beyond dreamy Ben Webster-like cadences, Elsewhere, he’s boxed into playing Hank Mobley to the pianist’s Jazz Messengers conception – complete with reed pecking. Even the title tune seems to have evolved organically from Kind of Blue.

No Lee Morgan, the trumpeter is invigilated to exhibit tremolo triplet tonguing and brassy rubato, while Manderscheid’s woody pizzicato is confined to walking. Attempting to liven up the proceedings, Kugel tries out chunky rim shots and double stroking, plus ready slaps and bounces on the snares and toms. But Heidtmann’s high-frequency comping, not to mention the pianist’s self-limiting compositions, keep the excitement level low.

Located in a far distant and much more frigid climate – which has noting to do with the geographical location of Cologne and Luxembourg – Arbor is the product of a woodwind player and composer who is absolutely certain of his vision. Avant garde in spite of itself – and in relation to Heidtmann’s neo-con stylings – Pilz’s deliberate textural limitations fully involve Kugel and Ramond.

There’s no argument that the CD reflects nothing but the bass clarinetist’s ideals, and that’s probably why the only standard recorded is a pointed and defiant version of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain”. At 7½ minutes – also the lengthiest track – Pilz’s unsentimental, straightforward reading of the tune doesn’t allow for façade cracking from the drummer’s restricted brush work or the bassist’s low-key and almost uninvolved solo.

Certain of Pilz’s horn slurs do reflect a Middle Eastern cast. Like France’s André Jaume and his mentor, American reed player Jimmy Giuffre, however, Pilz’s swooping trills are more often than not confined to the horn’s chalameau register. “Archeopteryx”, the one time he vibrates his way up to tongue-stopping split tones and cries, takes on the intensity of Energy Music-style multiphonics, so unprecedented is the surge.

Kugel’s real-time repertoire of double-time cymbal slaps plus rolling pops and hard, inverted sticking, coupled with Ramond’s buzzy arco sequences, promote relaxation of the bass clarinetist’s output to lighter, more subtle tones, as the recital moves towards its concluding second half. Side-slipping in quivering circles, Pilz’s pitch upticks to coloratura then altissimo as the rhythm is stressed, and he climaxes with stretched split tones that dart from lower-pitched growls to higher-pitch glissandi.

If Arbor suffers from a deficiency of emotion, than Live In Germany has a surfeit of it, with Ganelin’s triggered synthesizer vibrations often covering the others’ improvisations like whipped cream and icing on a black forest cake. With the two tracks taking almost-38 and more-than-42 minutes to evolve, there’s plenty of space for all the players – too bad the keyboardist’s synthesizer washes take up more than their fair share of the sonic space.

Paradoxically enough, both tunes develop the same way, with a long introduction and an extended conclusion that thicken the jazz, classical and absurdist textures Ganelin developed in his original trio’s recordings. Here though, it’s the mushy middle that needs redefinition.

Track one introduces the players unaccompanied, with the pianist’s timbres alternately decoratively rococo and dynamically excursive; the soprano saxophonist double tonguing and trilling with legit aspirations; and Kugel demonstrating his door-knocking beats and ride cymbal strokes. As Kugel continues to rub and pat his drum tops, Ganelin’s unforced Count Basie-like single notes escalate to electric piano-like fills and then to broad-based, church organ polyphony. As these sound waves thicken, Vysniauskas’ wavering and pinched soprano sax tones harden and vibrate to such an extent that the tones split before reposing into a finale of Paul Desmond-like gentling arpeggios. Kugel referees the two with hard, chunky ruffs and bounces.

Somehow Ganelin adds a pulse that replicates string bass walking to fit with his staccato boppish keyboard interface on the even lengthier second track. Picking up the tempo, the saxophonist begins speedily double-tonguing as if he just stepped out of a 1970s Blue Note LP. Yet as the layered ground bass lines and tremolo dynamics bulge from the keyboard, Ganelin and Vysniauskas appear to chasing each other in ever- diminishing circles. Triggered sideband flutters appear to decorate or distract rather than complement the sax lines. Meanwhile Kugel holds his ground – when he can be heard above the synthesizer outlay – with standard flams, ruffs and rebounds on his main kit, plus ratcheting friction from a barrage of ringing bell trees, resonating tam-tams and scraped woodblocks.

Vysniauskas’ ever more reductive slurs seemingly drive Ganelin to begin fingering nursery rhyme measures in the toy-piano register. Following another sequence of exploding organ-like timbres – and complementary drum rolls and siren-splattering smear from the soprano – the keyboardist settles into a low-frequency series of recital-style arpeggios with genteel classical coloration. Suddenly Kugel’s shuffle beat and the ghostly double bass intersect with Ganelin’s hard bop comping. The saxman counters with split tones that tighten as he breathes and Kugel propels the others to the finale with blunt cross sticking.

Demonstration of the percussionist’s rhythmic versatility, portions of each CD can be enjoyed. However none seem to provide a fully satisfying experience. Melding Ganelin’s romantic anarchy and Pilz’s striated formalism may have produced a winning formula, as each is a notable although flawed work. Disappointedly, Heidtmann’s CD is the least memorable here: he needs to forge a more unique musical identity.