Cryptogramophone CG 127

Chamber Quintet
Fenommedia FM 05 003

By Ken Waxman

Until about 15 years ago the chance of finding a cellist in an improvised music situation was as likely as discovering a banjo in a philharmonic situation. Occasionally bassists would double on the smaller instrument, but that was about it.

Radical changes occurred in the 1990s though and improv cello players are now as common as trombonists. Today, New York’s Erik Friedlander is the pre-eminent American improv cellist, with a C.V. that stretches from work in the Masada String Trio to gigs with Laurie Anderson and with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier. Friedlander’s long suit is his adaptability, and these CDs show off two facets of his skills. CHAMBER QUINTET is just that, a mixing of the cellist’s formalistic timbres, with Belgian Emmanuelle Somer’s oboe and English horn, American Michael Rabinowitz’s bassoon plus bass an drums, the later two instruments played by the highly-talented Oleœ brothers of Poland, who also wrote all 11 compositions in this recital.

Taking a far left turn from the other CD, PROWL, with the cellist own Topaz band, is a compendium of rock music, African rhythms and notated and improvised sounds. It features another brother duo in the rhythm section: electric bassist Stomu Takeishi and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, plus Andy Laster on alto saxophone and clarinet.

Pleasant enough, the CHAMBER QUINTET is essentially a recital, most concerned with the textures and timbres available by polyphonically melding the familiar tones of the traditional European instruments. Thus, although Somer has played improvised music with the likes of American trumpeter Dave Douglas, and Rabinowitz is deeply involved with jazz ensembles, playing with the Mingus Orchestra and bassist Joe Fonda, the compositions and arrangements mostly limit their contributions to traditional sounds; and it’s the same with the cellist.

Furthermore, most of the compositions seem to relate closely to romantic, impressionistic and baroque antecedents. This makes the date retrogressive, considering that the brothers, German clarinetist Rudi Mahall and Romanian pianist Mircea Tiberian improvised on themes written by modern comparers on a superior 2002 CD.

Languid and mellow most of the time, each of the tunes is well modulated, with the bassoon’s velvety richness featured much more than the lower-pitched growls and snorts of which the instrument is capable. His vibrating chest tones make an appearance once, and then only briefly.

It’s the same story with Somer. Her double reed’s ability to produce staccato squeals and tremolo pinched arches are downplayed for a melodious exoticism. Framed in liquid double counterpoint with the bassoonist many times, the serpentine qualities of the oboe are often also voiced to intersect with formalistic lines from the other front-liners. Other times she flutters a speedier line on top of the others, as if she’s playing Dixieland clarinet.

“Brat” Oleœ’ drumming is usually on a steady boil, providing the bottom for his faux 19th century melodies. Cymbal thunder, stallion clip-clops and martial beats add variety to his accompaniment. However, there never seems to be a point where the full extent of his kit command is on display, as it is elsewhere. Ditto for Marcin Oleœ. If his brother’s flams, rebounds and bounces never quite reach transcendence, then Marcin too sticks to basic, low-pitched walking in a straight line. Guitar-like chromatic picking and spiccato patterning are left to the cellist.

Without wanting to cause a Cain and Abel conflict among the Oleœ, “Rien que nous deux…” a composition of the bassist’s designed to feature him and Friedlander, offers more scope than most of his brother’s tunes. A melodious intermezzo, the piece showcases his rubato stroking while the cellist’s spiccato lines quicken to spiraling arpeggios.

Friedlander’s playing is less constrained on PROWL, although the nine compositions, written, except for one, by the cellist, approach another tradition, that of ethno-folk music with Arabic as well as Klezmer associations. These strands are most evident in the clarinet playing of Laster, whose background encompasses big and small bands and a stint with singer Lyle Lovett, but no obvious Jewish soul music.

At the same time, any Eastern European dance rhythms or flamenco-like pizzicato styling on the CD must take into account thumb-popping electric bass work from Stomu Takeishi, moderated by his improv association in bands led by pianist Myra Melford or reedist Henry Threadgill. Meantime Satoshi Takeishi’s percussion is informed by his backing of Brazilian jazz pianist Eliane Elias and Latin rhythm masters like Ray Barretto and Carlos “Patato” Valdes.

Not that there’s anything overly Latin in his performance; most of the time he ignores any sort of overt beat, preferring to hand drum with bongo-like resonation, sizzle thin textures from his cymbals, shake maracas or bluntly strike a surface to create tones similar to a kettle drum. Often when that rhythmic underpinning meets his brother’s vibrated bass lines, adding the cellist’s double-stopping arco plus Laster’s pitch-vibrated and trilling clarinet arpeggios suggests a countrified chamber recital with an undercurrent of primitivism. Sprightly double counterpoint between the reedman’s alto saxophone and the cello turn to R&B-like vamps balancing percussionist Takeishi’s contrapuntal percussion.

Elsewhere, as on “7th Sister”, bassist Takeishi makes a point of creating a pedal- point sliding buzz from his instrument, the better to dovetail with the ratcheting hand percussion from his brother, as Friedlander switches from intricate finger picking to flying staccato phrasing. “Rain Bearers” is a long semi-ceremonial track featuring unattached rhythms from the percussionist, which click together as if he was dancing in tap shoes.

More positively, “A Dangerous Game” is the one time Friedlander seems to put his languid impressionism aside and shrill extended, double-stopping, almost-Billy-Bangish string sawing, while “A Closer Walk with Thee”, the set’s one standard, is given a folksy reading. Here Laster’s double-stopping reed syncopation resembling what you might hear on a 1940s disc by clarinetist George Lewis. Backbeats and cymbal smacks find their way into the familiar melody, confirming Topaz’s individuality, but as in other places, distracting from the main theme.

These CDs may be worth investigating for Friedlander fans, but overall it appears as if too may of the improv elements in both are subordinated to conceits that adhere too closely to folkloric or semi-classical sounds.

Track Listing: Chamber: 1. Abyss 2. Galileo 3. Eternity 4. Enigma 5. Rien que nous deux… 6. Reflection 7. Horror vacui 8. Phoenix 9. Desert Walk 10. Nostalgia 11. Source

Personnel: Chamber: Emmanuelle Somer (oboe and English horn); Michael Rabinowitz (bassoon); Erik Friedlander (cello); Marcin Oleœ (bass); Bartlomiej “Brat” Oleœ (drums)

Track Listing: Prowl: 1. Howling Circle 2. Anhinga 3. Prowl 4. Chanting 5. 7th Sister 6. Rain Bearers 7. A Dangerous Game 8. A Closer Walk with Thee 9. Najime

Personnel: Prowl: Andy Laster (alto saxophone and clarinet); Erik Friedlander (cello); Stomu Takeishi (electric bass); Satoshi Takeishi (percussion)