FAB (Fonda/Altschul/Bang)

Live at the Iron Works, Vancouver
Konnex KCD 5158

Thomas, Storrs and Sarpolas
Time Share
Louie Records 036

Filled with flowing fancy fiddling, these West-Coast recorded CDs showcase the initial and most recent violinist from the long-running String Trio of New York.

They offer much more than that, of course and despite a similarity in personnel, the discs couldn’t be more different. An Eugene, Ore.-native on visit to Corvallis, Ore., violinist Rob Thomas slides through a set of spontaneous compositions in the company of local drummer – and label owner – Dave Storrs, plus other New York visitors, fellow Pacific Northwest expat, bassist Dick Sarpola and his son, percussionist George Sarpola. Thus the TS&S name. Backyard snapshots in the booklet testify to the informality of the session: everyone is wearing shorts and sandals and a nearby table is heaped with chips, dips and soft drinks.

On the other hand, Thomas’ long-ago antecedent, Billy Bang, works over six compositions and improvisations with the other members of the jocularly and alphabetically designated FAB trio, in a Vancouver, B.C. concert. Besides B, or Bang, F is Joe Fonda, who has performed with players as varied as pianist Michael Jefrey Stephens and Chinese guzheng player Xu Fengxia; while A is legendary drummer Barry Altschul, who backed Anthony Braxton long before percussionist Sarpola’s birth.

Along with Leroy Jenkins, Free Jazz’s pre-eminent violinist, Bang’s list of collaborators ranges from the late Memphis saxophonist Frank Lowe – honored on the second tune here – to Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar and New York bassist William Parker. Less high profile, Thomas, associate professor of Strings at Boston’s Berklee College, is also a member of drummer Greg Bendian’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, and has worked with The Jazz Passengers and The Soldier String Quartet.

Relaxing into the homey vibe, his playing on Time Share is noteworthy, but all-and-all there’s a certainly sameness to the five tracks. Storrs lays down a strong beat as does the bassist, but the ratcheting percussion from Sarpola Junior often sounds vestigial, while overall it’s often hard to distinguish the improvisations on one track from those on the next.

Featuring one original each from Bang and Fonda, plus four group compositions, the skills and techniques of the veteran players on Live however, not only demarcate tunes that reflect FAB’s identity, but also present them with a variety of musical strategies.

For instance the nearly 14-minute “Tune for Barry”, features the drummer’s terpsichorean exposition of extended nerve beats, press roll, flams, paradiddles and ruffs, expressed with cross sticking and counter-crosswise rhythms. Yet this percussion extravaganza merely sets up sprawling, sharp screeches from Bang’s violin, that quote “Take the A Train” in a flurry of flying triple stopping, as Fonda slaps his strings as accompaniment. Continuing to outline the ostinato, the bassist’s pulses underline the fiddler’s work, which tapped and plucked with either hand moves from claw-hammer-like banjo strokes to flanging vibrations

More low-key, “For Frank Lowe” is built up from a basso bottom and cymbal quivers to chromatic bull fiddle strums, serpentine sul ponticello lines from Bang and break beats from Altschul. Exhausting in the fashioning of unique oscillating lines in honor of his former combo-partner, Bang eventually picks up the tempo along with the number of strings he vibrates. Meanwhile Fonda walks powerfully and the drummer colors the proceedings. While almost turning around the beat with rim shots and shattering cymbal feints, he martially gooses the rhythm by the composition’s finale.

Often working in tandem with the bassist, Bang not only holds up his part in polyphonic exchanges, but also melds his tremolo movements so the ricocheting pumps and patterns take on koto-like echoes as well as the more common guitar and banjo suggestions.

Climax is achieved on “Song For My Mother”, the Fonda-penned, nearly 16-minute final track. An intermezzo of deep bass notes and slap rhythms, the composition finds the bassist working his way on the strings from the tuning pegs to below the bridge as Altschul bounds and bounces and Bang exposes erhu-like textures for theme variations. In near-hoedown mode, Bang’s playing is tonic, legato and dance-like, with Fonda shadowing his every time shift. Accentuating watery undulating lines as he concludes his solo, Bang allows the drummer’s low-key irregular beats and the bassist’s fading single strokes to make the final comments.

Featuring song titles even further out than FAB’s, you get the feeling that TS&S’ free-form antics resulted in track naming after the fact. As accomplished in instrument manipulation as FAB, the veteran trio’s polyrhythm and contrapuntal interaction keeps the five tunes from dragging, while tyro Sarpola judiciously adds sonic colors from what sound like lightly smacked bongo drums, rattled maracas and undifferentiated drum heads.

The most accommodating of pals, the bassist and drummer are similarly unobtrusive. Keeping the rhythmic emphasis going with pumping bass pulses and clattering pops and chops from the drum set, they allow Thomas to be the cynosure, while subtly guiding him away from exhibitionism.

On his own, the violinist adapts multiphonic sideswipes and carefully focused legit phrasing with the same ease. Frequently double-stopping, as on the title tune, he alternates breakneck pizzicato strumming with gypsy-fiddle-like spiccato at such blinding speeds that you often don’t realize he’s shifted from fingers to bow and vice-versa until that motion has already concluded. Allegro is a favored pace and agitato a preferred performance directive.

Throughout, whether Thomas shuffle bows, triple stops or saws staccato-like, Storrs plus Sarpola and son are there with the proper blunt rhythm or cascading vibration to frame his bravura patterning. Teamwork even allows for the subtle mitosis of the three dividing the beat into its component parts without altering the size and shape of the tune.

However as educational as it must have been to expose the younger Sarpola to profound free-form improv, and as much fun as it allowed the older musicians to renew their association in a smaller forum than Storrs’ Tone Sharks band, discipline is lacking. With every track a showpiece – especially for Thomas’ impressive technique – the ebb and flow goes missing.

Storrs describes it this way: “We talked about a session for a few years … And finally …we went out to the studio and played for a few hours.” Spectacular in some of the cooperation and soloing, a better strategy would have involved more shape and focus like FAB’s CD.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Time: 1. It’s Not Always Pretty 2. Clay Hippopotamus 3. Time Share

4. Tut Tut Tudala 5. Helping Hand

Personnel: Time: Rob Thomas (violin); Dick Sarpola (bass); Dave Storrs (drums); George Sarpola (percussion)

Track Listing: Live: 1. FAB 2. For Frank Lowe 3. B.B. 4. Tune for Barry 5. For Don Cherry 6. Song For My Mother

Personnel: Live: Billy Bang (violin); Joe Fonda (bass); Barry Altschul (drums)