Szilárd Mezei International Ensemble

Draught
Leo Records

Pierre Dørge & New Jungle Orchestra
Negra Tigra
Ilk

Copenhagen Art Ensemble
Don’t Mention the War
Stunt Records

By Ken Waxman
April 30, 2006

Variations on a theme, each of these CDs from Northern and Central European mid-sized bands subtly mesh tinctures available from different-sized ensembles into ensemble aural pictures, rather then relying on the vibrant colors from single featured soloists.

Constituted as a bedside cameo, a front room landscape or a museum-sized hanging, the three discs feature bands of eight (Draught), 10 (Negra Tigra), and 14 (Don’t Mention the War) players – with all the ensembles officially smaller than big bands, but large enough to provide distinctive shadings in these art works.

Successor to various New Jungle Orchestras (NJO) that Danish guitarist/composer/arranger Pierre Dørge has led since 1980, Negra Tigra is the most cohesive session, working stylistic additions from early Jazz into a contemporary setting, most definitely including a mini-parody of the Dixieland warhorse “Tiger Rag”. Spelling a septet of Scandinavians here is American trumpeter Herb Robertson, whose valve-authority is perfect for brass-concentrated ensembles like these.

Co-led by saxophonist Lotte Anker and conductor Ture Larsen – and despite the presence of laptopist Jakob Riis, a member of Ssshhhh, a sound-art group, The Copenhagen Art Ensemble [CAE] produces the most straight-ahead jazz improv sounds.

Discovery of the year however, is violist/composer Szilárd Mezei, whose International Ensemble (IE) was recorded live at Serbia and Montenegro’s 10th annual Jazz & Improvised Music festival in 2004. Who knew that such a band or festival existed?

Mezei is a Serbian-born ethnic Hungarian, who now lives in Orleans, France and returns home once a year. Internationalism and exile – which is also touched upon by the presence in the NJO of Robertson, who lived for years in Germany – animates the IE. Not only does the group consist of locals who deserve to be better known, such as spectacular drummer István Csik, but also ringers from away like German saxophonists Michael Hornstein and Matthias Schubert, plus Danish trombonist Jens Balder, who at home is a member of at least three African [!] dance bands.

Although Mezei has been described as “Serbia and Montenegro's only avant-musician in the true sense of the word”, his composerly influences are more comprehensive than that. Besides echoes of spontaneous local and Hungarian folk airs, he has been influenced by classical composers such as Bartok and Liszt, pianist-composer Gyögy Szabados and many eras of jazz. There are the expected Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus echoes, along with the sophisticated East Coast orchestrations of 1950s’ thinkers such as Gigi Gyrce and George Russell. Meanwhile whether by notation or influence, Hornstein, the IE’s alto saxophone soloist, is orally fixated on the sort of wide vibrato that Earl Bostic brought to his playing.

This is apparent as early as “Breezy Draught”, the first track, where the alto saxophonist’s high-pitched, horn bell-rattling tongue-stopping is met with strained (Stan) Getzian note vibrations from Schubert. Undeterred, bass clarinetist Bogdan Rankovic joins to create a reed trio, slurring mahogany-tinged variations in step with the other two. Tinkling piano comping and bell ringing from Csik leads to an ascending adagio guitar-like finale from the violist.

Progressive bop influences, as well as chalumeau Balkan-like smears from Rankovic’s clarinet are present on “In Step”, Draught’s shortest track at less than nine minutes. Throughout, the drummer’s brushes-directed shim sham shimmy beat and clean plunger work from Jens reference earlier traditions.

Mezei’s major statements however are reserved for “Chariot of Sun – That” and the final, oddly titled “Female Boxing”, which time out at respectively nearly-25 and almost-27 minutes each.

Voiced as Mingus would have, heavy on the low-pitched, unison horns, the former drifts from Csik’s shuffles and bounces plus steady walking from bassist Ervin Malina, to more so-called European flourishes from pianist Svetlana Maras and the composer himself. As the tonal centre shifts so do modal dynamics from the keyboard, while screeching spiccato and col legno note patterning are the violist’s contributions.

Referencing Ellington’s Jungle band – Dørge’s main influence as well – the group’s surging rhythmic tones soon evolve into power chords with the bass clarinet on the bottom. Soon, the Bostic of the Balkans lets loose with as intense a vibrato as Charlie Mariano did in similar circumstances on Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. No direct cop from that masterwork, Mezei’s composition follows up this dramatic outpouring with barnyard clucking from the plunger trombone, cross-blown, glottal punctuation from the reeds and stifled slices from fiddle. As exploding clarinet riffs lead into a buoyant dance, the ensemble floats on a walking bass line and martial drum beats. Another variation features tremolo tonguing from the brass and guitar-like pizzicato harmonies from the viola, as the horn section contrapuntally accompanies the two. A solo slap bass extravaganza precedes the concluding variation and finale which ingeniously recaps the gentle swinging theme.

Punchier, “Female Boxing” weaves and bobs from an early section featuring Schubert and Mezei expelling enough multiphonics to recall Albert Ayler’s saxophone chafing against Michel Sampson’s sul ponticello violin, as well as metronomic cymbal slaps, rolls and rim shots from the percussionist. Later, a temperate, near-rococo series of broken ensemble chords leads into a shaded alto solo that takes more from the Swing-R&B tradition of Johnny Hodges, Bostic and others than any subsequent saxman. Snaky tongue-stopping from the tenor saxophonist and sul ponticelo and sul tasto asides from the fiddler, move the theme to an a capella ‘bone excavation from Balder, with his wah-wahs joined by bass clarinet growls. A crescendo manages to climatically mix a swinging interlude of jazzy piano, bass and drums, Aylerian polyharmonies from the horns and what could be Moldavian cymbalum timbres. With each resonating at certain points, the finale involves a drum rasp and a concluding zither-like ping.

Moving from the Balkans to the Baltic Sea, we find two Danish groups, one of which – the NJO – has reveled in its rawness for over a quarter-century, and to amplify this, recorded this CD with only two microphones; and the other – the CAE – established enough to encompass five brasses, four reeds, a conventional rhythm section plus a cello and a lap top computer. Organized a decade ago, under the guidance of Anke, who has played with Americans such as pianist Marilyn Crispell, and trombonist Larsen, a former member of the Danish Radio Big Band and Thad Jones’ Eclipse band, the CAE actively solicits compositions from saxophonist John Tchicai and Dørge among many others, and recorded the well-received open .coma CD with alto saxophonist Tim Berne a couple of years ago.

Here again an unstated Mingus influence is apparent on the six tracks, along with several arrangements which resemble those Ernie Wilkins and Neal Hefti crafted for Count Basie’s New Testament band. Again like the other ensembles, this framework isn’t derivative so much as post-modern, so that on Larsen’s “Spaltechs II”, for instance, those Ur-modernist riffs share space with Gene Krupa-like whacks on the sizzle cymbals and snares from drummer Anders Mogensen, who also plays in pianist Jacob Anderskov’s trio, plus Riis’ POMO oscillating laptop pulsations.

On the other hand, Anker’s appropriately titled “Battlefield II”, begins with one of the trumpeters shrilling a distant “to the colors” bugle call, as Mogensen pounds out a militaristic rhythm which has the ensemble aurally marching in tight formation. Following a contrapuntal chorus of splayed brass lines however, the reeds relax into stop time and are soon honking and smearing timbres, lead by a braying Lithuanian baritone saxophonist Liudas Mockunas – who has also worked with Dørge – and arco slices from Swedish cellist John Ehde. Flutters, buzzes and hisses from Riis’ laptop join with the growling trombone lines of Peter Dahlgren – who also plays with Anderskov – until the drum beats redirect the unison ensemble. Harmonies gradually grow fainter as if the band is an army fading from the field.

Throughout, band members impress with their collective or individual ability to leap from style to style, while maintaining that Basie-like pulse. Ehde, for instance, adds parody goulash-restaurant string lines to one piece, while Anders Banke – who is also part of guitarist Mark Solborg’s band – channels Lester Young with a feathery tenor sax solo. Yet overall, CAE comes up short when compared to the NJO and the IE because of a couple of Anker-penned tracks that depend on spoken word inserts. Both the title track and “What Is the Question” force the band members to mouth unison phrases that make them sound more like bored glee club members than Mingus or Sun Ra sidemen shouting soulful exhortations.

Classic Jazz yells and chortles may figure in Negra Tigra, but not often or vociferous enough to disrupt the proceedings. Besides after 25 years, Dørge and company do more than put a modern spin on Ellington’s Jungle band. Most noticeable are pieces such as “Streets of Ha Noi (sic)”, “Vietnam Xong”, “Ushama” and “Lang Ra”, the first two of which are appropriately Orientalized, the later two atmospheric and percolating respectively.

On “Streets of Ha Noi”, Robertson, Norwegian trumpeter Gunnar Halle and cornetist Kasper Tranberg initially sound as if they’re blowing into radungs or long bass Tibetan metal horns, but quickly add mouthpiece slurs to make the composition – written like all the others by Dørge – Occidental. Drummer Martin Andersen adds gongs and the click-clacks of wooden blocks for an underlying Eurasian feel, as freeform polyrhythms and pitch-sliding from other players climax in dense, staccato lines. Splintering like an Art Ensemble of Chicago exposition, the tune expires with what seems to be a finale of human breaths.

Even more Orientalized, “Vietnam Xong” approximates gagaku or court music, but from Japan not Vietnam. On top of harsh, layered reed cries, Robertson unleashes a POMO solo of splintering brassy triplets, interrupted infrequently by rhythm guitar strum and the shakes of riveted sizzle cymbals. Again, while the basic theme seems to hug the South China Sea, popped cow bells and a slurred trombone bite from 25-year NJO veteran trombonist Kenneth Agerholm moves it closer to the Mississippi River.

Similar Old and New World conflict exists on “Ushama”, but here the wavering Mongol-like echoes from Morten Carlsen’s Hungarian taragoto faces off against cascading riffs from the massed horns that suggest pseudo-Native American Indian tunes like J.J. Johnson’s “Mohawk”. With Robertson blasting jagged triplets in the upper register, pianist Irene Becker, bassist Thommy Andersson and Andersen, comp, walk and brush-stroke the theme back to whispering smoothness.

Finally, “Lang Ra” undulates with the sort of percolating, yet offbeat harmonies you’d expect from the Instant Composers Pool or Willem Breuker Kollllektief bands from the Netherlands. Polychromatic textures appear all at once and go off at various angles – rubato and tremolo. As the brass screams triplets, the reeds chomp out a series of broken octaves that eventually combine with the other sections for an abrupt finale.

Each of the little big bands deserves a hearing. But to rank them in terms of satisfactorily reaching individual musical goals, it’s the International Ensemble first, the New Jungle Orchestra a close second and the Copenhagen Art Ensemble a more distant third.