June 26, 2006
Manuel Mengis Gruppe 6
Into The Barn
By Ken Waxman
One of a clutch of younger instrumentalists in bands whose allegiance lies as much with rock as with jazz, Gruppe 6, of Lucerne, Switzerland, like those following a parallel path in other countries, shouldn't be confused with the dread jazz-rock fusion groups of the 1970s.
Instead, the band, led by trumpeter and part-time mountain guide (!) Manuel Mengis, and mostly made up of recent Lucerne University of Music grads, isn't interested in a synthesis of these two powerful sounds. Akin to bands such as Norway's Jazzmob, Germany's Olaf Ton, Gold Sparkle, the Vandermark5 from the United States, and fellow Swiss Noisy Minority, Gruppe 6 merely wants to appropriate the most exciting elements of jazz, rock, and free improv for its own purposes. Into The Barn shows how much it has accomplished, yet also highlights the youthfulness of the group, filled out by alto saxophonist Achim Escher, tenor saxophonist Christoph Erb, guitarist Flo Stoffner, drummer Lionel Friedli, and Marcel Stalder on electric bass.
Each of the tunes feature some variation of bass guitar rhythmic thrusts, hardened backbeat drumming, wiggling guitar vamps that sound as if they could have come from the electric piano of Weather Report's Joe Zawinul, and horn lines that combine for thematic riffs or split apart for episodes of thick, speedy multiphonics. Mengis, who played in the Lucerne orchestra when it was fronted by New York composer Maria Schneider, rarely lets an opportunity pass to pepper the tunes with his languid version of Miles Davis-like, Harmon-muted trumpeting.
Composed by Mengis, as is all the material here, the almost-seventeen-minute Seni is representative of the band's strategy. Initially built on Friedli's flams and bounces, it kicks into high gear as the stick man's rhythmic thumps are subverted by chicken-clucking pecks from Escher, pulsating guitar arpeggios, and a rolling bass guitar line. Harder drumbeats encourage flutter-tongued adventures from the altoist as the other horns riff around him. Altering the tempo, Mengis follows this with a low-key, open-horned selection of tremolo grace notes, backed by delicate picking from Stoffner, who recorded a mainstream trio CD earlier in the decade. The final section contrasts a purring rubato section from the trumpeter with contrapuntal reed lines and focused comping from the guitarist.
Making an overall good impression, Gruppe 6 would score higher if more space were allocated to Erb's hard-edged tenor saxophone work and the trumpeter's brassy triplets, and less to the guitarist's need to provide flanged comments on nearly everyone else's solo. As is so often the case with young bands, Gruppe 6 needs also to learn not to fill every space with sound. Silence, pauses, and pacing would add to its presentation. Still, Into the Barn is an auspicious debut for a band worth watching.
In MusicWorks Issue #95