Gjerstad, Stephens, Hession

Live at The Termite Club
Loose Torque LT 009

Instinctual Eye
Born in Brooklyn
Barking Hoop BKH-010

Two years, two months and two continents separate these two live sessions, though the uniformly high quality of the two trio efforts confirms that such improvisations are timeless – especially when they come from accomplished musicians such as these.

To continue the numeral associations, two of the players on two of the discs are the same: Norwegian reedist Frode Gjerstad and British bassist Nick Stephens, who have played together in different configurations for more than two decades. Gjerstad, who is a father figure to younger Norwegian improvisers like drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, and Stephens who often worked with the late British drummer John Stevens – another Gjerstad associate – recently formed Instinctual Eye with New Jersey-based percussionist Kevin Norton.

Known for his decade-long work in Anthony Braxton’s bands, Norton’s playing isn’t limited to any particular genre. Neither is British drummer Paul Hession, who joined Gjerstad and Stephens at the Termite Club two years previously. The Leeds-based drummer has a long-time affiliation with multi-reedist Mick Beck and has also worked with a variety of American, United Kingdom and Continental improvisers.

Both CDs were recorded live – Born in Brooklyn comes from a session at Barbès club – and the downside of these circumstances appears on both discs. Overlong improvisations can be mesmerizing in person with the musicians present, but drag when transferred to vinyl and laser. Thus Brooklyn’s 42 minute plus “Fitzcarraldo’s Beautiful Nonsequitur” is less memorable than the literally half its length title tune that follows it, while Live at The Termite Club’s more-than-37 minute “Brewers Tap” drags in its final section.

On Termite’s three selections, Hession’s role is more background than Norton’s on the other CD. He dots the ‘Is’ and crosses the ‘Ts’ left dangling from Gjerstad’s emotional and assertive lines on both clarinet and saxophone. On alto saxophone, the Norwegian’s smears and cries join tongue-stopping and flutter tonguing to create a program that powerfully vibrate and sluice up and down the scale.

Gjerstad also introduces spetrofluctuation, widely corrosive note spearing and repetitive body tube honks, with all the movements carefully monitored by Hession’s drum breaks and Stephens’ thick, double-stopping patterning and rumbling. “Meeting at the Adelphi” eschews rhythmic atonality as it winds up, as reed squeaks are backed by descending line from the bassist and snare rattles from the drummer.

The dynamism on “Brewers Tap” arrives mid-way through the track, when by alternating phrases on clarinet and saxophone, Gjerstad appears to be duetting with himself on altissimo-pitched saxophone and low-toned clarinet. Staccato saxophone reverb brings forth sympathetic coloration from the bassist, while high-pitched arpeggios are backed by string taps and plucks. Earlier the clarinet’s harsh timbre seems to be filtered through a reed sieve, as the others contribute reductionist particles of flams, ruffs and bounces in Hession’s case, and pitch-sliding textures that stretch infinitesimally from Stephens’ strings.

Despite the patchy sections which encumber it, the tune gains a second wind just before its conclusion. Here the drummer’s slides, friction and martial sticking buoy Gjerstad’s exploratory whirls and whorls into clusters of excitement.

Similar long-form immoderation weakens parts of “Fitzcarraldo’s Beautiful Nonsequitur” on the other CD. Luckily Norton’s double-mallet versatility on vibes, measured triangle tolling and his shakes and pops on drum tops add defining rhythmic colors. Full-throttled, bull-fiddle swells plus repeated guitar-like frails contribute as well.

Yet no matter how individually impressive Gjerstad’s spasms of squeaky coloratura clarinet timbres peeps or twisty-turny expansion of wide-ranging trills and slurs are, their sheer volume is wearying at points. Triple counterpoint seems the most appropriate strategy, as thin, warbling clarinet whistles, cymbal pops and scrapes plus the bass’s wavering bowed harmonics reach rapprochement.

“Born in Brooklyn” confirms this strategy with the interaction resembling the rapport of both a so-called classical chamber trio and a chamber jazz aggregation. Chalumeau clarinet voicing, slap bass power and ringing vibraharp thwacks recast the three as a hip Benny Goodman-style trio; extended split tones, resonating cymbals and string vamps display a more sophisticated, contemporary intertwining.

Climax arrives with interlocking call-and response section that includes various textures layered on top of one another. Stephens moves from moderato cross patterns to sul ponticello high notes, Norton cymbal pops and bounces his toms, while Gjerstad’s squeals and smears speed up to staccatissimo. Gradually, the granular split tones and pressured, false-register vibrations descend and are seconded by repeated growls and string sawing from the bassist.

High-quality and memorable improv from two trios, marred only minimally by maximized tracks lengths.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live: 1. Meeting at the Adelphi 2. The L Shaped Room 3. Brewers Tap

Personnel: Live: Frode Gjerstad (clarinet and alto saxophone); Nick Stephens (bass) and Paul Hession (drums)

Track Listing: Born: 1. Fitzcarraldo’s Beautiful Nonsequitur 2. Born in Brooklyn

Personnel: Born: Frode Gjerstad (clarinet and alto saxophone); Nick Stephens (bass) and Kevin Norton (vibraphone, drums and percussion)