Michael Vlatkovich

Across 36 Continents
pfMentum PFM CD030

Brassum
Live
pfMentum PFM CD036

Unfamiliar perhaps, because he’s chosen to stay on the American West Coast rather than make the trek east, Portland, Ore.-based trombonist Michael Vlatkovich has the chops and imagination to be numbered among the major improvisational music stylists, as these exceptional CDs prove.

Granted the conceptions and end-products are different – and Vlatkovich is only part of a quartet playing the compositions of tubaist Mark Weaver on Live – but it’s the trombonist’s distinctive contributions that help shape the music. In the past, Vlatkovich has worked with multi-reedist Vinny Golia in large and small bands, in RovaOrkestra, in trumpeter Jeff Kaiser’s Ockodektet and in trumpeter and flugelhornist Rob Blakeslee’s quartet. Both those higher-pitched brass players return the favor on Across 36 Continents, with Vlatkovich’s tentet subsequently filled out by Weaver, bass trombonist Michael Powers, French hornist Jill Torberson, Kurt Peterson, Rich Halley and Alan Luchusza on reeds plus percussionist Chris Lee.

A smaller, yet just as lively aggregation, Brassum combines the pulse of a brass marching band with the technical advances of well-trained musicians. Cornetist Dan Clucas, another Ockodektet member, and New York-based drummer Harris Eisenstadt, who works with players as different as saxophonists Rob Brown and percussionist Adam Rudolph, complete the quartet.

Utilizing Vlatkovich’s sometimes vaudevillian humor, Clucas’ single-minded lead work and versatile soloing, plus Eisenstadt percussion command which takes in African as well as European influences, Weaver’s seven compositions also parades his brass beast’s nimbleness. In the absence of a chordal instrument, he supplies the pedal point on which the others can balance their sonic skills. Yet his valve twisting and expansive melodic lines also showcase his solo skills.

Not adverse to playing passages a capella to increase the dramatic content, or whispering delicate chromatic runs without seeming as if he’s aurally replicating a picture of a hippo en pointe, the tubaist evokes references as varied as Second Line struts and contemporary classical counterpoint.

Key track is the elongated, nearly 18½-minute “The Meaning of the World/Shades of Grey”. Evolving from replication of a brass choir’s close harmonies, the piece is much more than that, as the drummer’s rattles and bounces linked to the tuba’s ostinato line keep the beat straight and nearly danceable.

Initially, Clucas carries the theme, which is commented on with plunger tones from Vlatkovich. Soon however, there’s role reversal as Weaver picks up the melody line and the cornetist blasts frenetic triplets in counterpoint. Smeary tailgate slurs from the trombonist, chromatic chirrups from the cornetist and staccato pedal point from the tubaist encircle Eisenstadt’s ringing cross patterns and nerve beats leading to a stop-time brassy finale. Then Weaver’s rubato valve-twisting and pedal point shifts are resolved in the appended coda or postlude.

Elsewhere, other tracks are enlivened with combinations of triple brass counterpoint, extended wah-wahs, hocketing lines plus touches of Klezmer. Eisenstadt’s Africanized percussion plays off against the sometimes tender theme-warbling from Clucas. Meanwhile, Vlatkovich shows off his collection of polytones, swallows and smeary gutbucket pops.

Throughout Weaver’s sensitive writing give each man enough space to assert himself. “Pumpkin Pie”, the final tune, even introduces rondo ornamentation in contrapuntal horn parts and layered harmonic pulses. Over time, one after another of the brass break free for staccato tongued notes than reshape the group interplay into a high-stepping exit.

A medium for Vlatkovich’s compositions as Live is for Weaver’s, Across 36 Continents is much briefer than the other CD – less than three-quarters of an hour. Plus the bone man has plenty of help in the solo department.

Replacing the (still) absent double bass player’s function with an emphasis on low brass tones, many of the trombonist’s tunes also rest on the push-pull tension and release. Lee does double duty throughout, not only keeping the rhythm going with his kit, but adding Lionel Hampton-like percussive coloring with his vibes.

Like Clucas on the other CD, Blakeslee operates most frequently in his horn’s mellow mid-range with relaxed and unforced tremolos, sometimes cushioned by daubs of French horn harmony. Kaiser spins and bends his notes, especially on the loquaciously titled “It’s Too Much To See Things Any More Clearly Than One Must See Them”. Weaver brays on cue, Power utilizes the lowest register of his basso horn, while both saxophonists offer heavily vibrated flutter tonguing or jagged, bitten-off trills when needed.

Using the natural harmonies of the massed horns to provide tonality, Vlatkovich turns “Asking How Tiny Screams Rust Thousands of Times Beneath Enormous Rocks” – another mouthful – into an impassioned tenor saxophone showcase for Halley, whose arpeggios unfold above riffing horn lines. In his own solos, the trombonist opens up pieces like track four – whose title is an interlocked graphic symbol – with a series of human-voice-like rubato runs and polyphonic tongue slurs.

Since Across 36 Continents is a showcase for his composition of extended motifs however, the impressionistic color spectrum adumbrated earlier by moderato French horn and tuba unison lines and a creamy alto solo from Peterson on “9113”, reach fruition with “It’s Too Much …”

A weird amalgam of strained New Orleans-like gutbucket tones and the pinpoint intensity of some of Gil Evans’ curvaceous timbral exercises, the piece is given nearly 10½ minutes – plus three if you hear Halley’s relaxed ballad extro in the next track as its continuation – to unfold.

Vlatkovich wah-wahs, Kaiser spins plunger spurts and bent notes, while the pumping brass, riffing reeds and clip-clop percussion vibrate in the background. Legato and polyphonic, the final section reverberates with double-timed orchestral interludes, with Halley’s conclusion breathy arpeggios and robust counter tones.

Both fine discs, Across 36 Continents has a slight edge due to the wide-ranging tonal colors available from the 10 instrumentalists.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Across: 1. 5 Why Zee 1 2. I Have These Tears 3. Asking How Tiny Screams Rust Thousands of Times Beneath Enormous Rocks 4. [symbol] 5. Be Careful 6. 9113 7. It’s Too Much To See Things Any More Clearly Than One Must See Them 8. All of You None of Us Knows

Personnel: Across: Jeff Kaiser (trumpet); Rob Blakeslee (trumpet and flugelhorn); Michael Vlatkovich (trombone and percussion); Michael Powers (bass trombone); Jill Torberson (French horn); Mark Weaver (tuba): Kurt Peterson (alto and tenor saxophones); Rich Halley (tenor saxophone); Alan Luchusza (bass clarinet) and Chris Lee (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Live: 1. Selvage 2. The Meaning of the World/Shades of Grey 3. In Place Of 4. Brown Blue 5. Slub 6. A Grain of Mustard Seed 7. Pumpkin Pie

Personnel: Live: Dan Clucas (cornet); Michael Vlatkovich (trombone and percussion); Mark Weaver (tuba) and Harris Eisenstadt (drums)