Frank Gratkowski/Misha Mengelberg

Leo CD LR 476

Umbrella UMR 033

Darting throughout the compositions and improvisations with slithery alto saxophone lines and refined, legato clarinet techniques, Cologne-based Frank Gratkowski proves his readiness for disparate musical challenges on these sessions.

On each CD he marks time with a pianist – a famous European on Vis-à-vis and an unjustly unknown American on ORM – while the later disc adds a bassist and drummer. The strengths of the performances are such, however, that the same high playing standards are retained from one to the other.

Reed soloist of choice for band leaders such as American drummer Gerry Hemingway and pianist Michiel Braam of the Netherlands, Gratkowski’s Dutch connection is such that Vis-à-vis finds him in the company of one of the veteran founders of European Free Music improvisation, Amsterdam’s Misha Mengelberg.

Gratkowski frequently travels to North America as well, and his ORM piano partner is Dave Fox, part of a group of go-their-own-way improvisers clustered in North Carolina, which also includes bassist David Menestres and percussionist Ian Davis. The pianist, who teaches at Greensboro College, has a quirky command of inside and outside piano mechanics that meshes well with the reedist’s free-form playing. A full-time academic, Fox has also worked with banjoist Eugene Chadbourne and European noise-maker Martin Klapper, while Davis has recorded with ex-ROVA member, multi-reedist Andrew Voigt, as well as earlier on with Gratkowski.

Practitioner of subtle movement rather than power percussion, Davis makes a difference in many of the tunes without being aggressive. His most common lick is a log-rolling hollow thwack, with pops, slaps and bounces combined into off-centre accompaniment. More often than not, he subtly manipulates his sticks rather than bearing down on the drum tops.

Although except for the odd sul ponticello scrap, Menestres is mostly unheard, Fox is all over nearly every piece with guitar-like internal piano string strums and half-speed almost boppy cadences. A frequent trick of his is to unspool phrases just slightly faster than the tick-tock drumming and Gratkowski’s moderato runs, then elongate them still further.

Surprisingly too, on two balladic outings, Gratkowski’s saxophone obbligatos report in from Paul Desmond or Stan Getz territory in tandem with Fox’s Bill Evans-like restful patterning. This bleached, cool mood is maintained until arching split tones from the reed man launch as foil to the pianist’s now tensile, cascading broken chords.

Elsewhere, Gratkowski’s in-your-face modernism gets a proper work out. Wolf-like yowling, tongue pops and nasal split tone are on display during “HLT” along with internal string plucked coupled with external key depression from Fox. “LON” showcases tongue slaps, growly lip blubbering and reed sucking, as the remaining three players combine to percussively crash, vibrate and resonate in disparate fashions to collide with the reedist’s sharp, staccato cries.

These sorts of timbres are also featured on Vis-à-vi’s six tracks, since Mengelberg demands Gratkowski be on his symbolic toes with each of the reedman’s four instruments. The Dutch pianist has the ability to encompass seminal shifts as he plays. These range from child-like pitter-pattering to crescendos and cadenzas of allegro patterning to undulating note clusters and stark, one-note theatricism.

Woe befalls the playing partner who doesn’t keep up. Thus, to counter the pianist’s crescendos, Gratkowski digs out grainy timbres that hocket from mid-range down to bow-scraping timbres and up to rough, shrilling spit tones. Or he introduces wide-ranging buzzing reed scrapes and their equivalent overtones to deal with Mengelberg’s maddeningly simple single notes. At one point Gratkowski even trills kazoo-like, seemingly the best response to the pianist’s spare chord inventions and tone-less whistles.

In sharp contrast, the finale of “Mix vis-à-vis” has Mengelberg ostensibly trying to cram as many notes into the bar as he can – and succeeding – as the reedist caws and cries in altissimo. This irregularly paced duo action seemingly is no relation to those tunes which feature Gratkowski on alto saxophone trilling unconnected timbres which speed up to pitch vibrated whole tones, echoed and amplified by the pianist’s cross-patterning hand pumps. As the reed lines reach prestissimo, Mengleberg, the contrarian, plays largo, with his undulating contrapuntal note clusters presaging Gratkowski’s switch to contrabass clarinet and eventual rhino-like bellowing that fills in every space left by the pianist. Reaching a compromise between the two players, low-pitched reed tones eventually sluice to moderato and legato, and are accompanied by ponderous, recital-style note clusters.

Similarly, while other textures may be playful or romantic, the aptly named “Mix and Match” resounds with portamento keyboard links in nocturne-like style that diverge with the reedist’s screams, yowls and snorts. Transforming himself by suddenly outputting Cool-Jazz mainstream comping, Mengelberg smoothly reins in Gratkowski’s well-respired split tones plus fierce rooster-crowing and chirping note expansions.

Whether it’s facing American aggressiveness or Dutch sarcasm, there’s no doubt that Gratkowski holds him own with a mixture of German fortitude and resolve – plus universal inventiveness.


— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: ORM: 1. BEDO 2. CAIRN 3. EUVL 4. LON 5. MAJC 6. ORM 7. PHP 8. HLT

Personnel: ORM: Frank Gratkowski (alto saxophone and clarinet); Dave Fox (piano); David Menestres (bass) and Ian M. Davis (percussion)

Track Listing: Vis: 1. Geburtstags mix 2. Gehackter preis mix 3. Mix digestiv 4. Mix vis à vis 5. Mix fraktal 6. Mix and match.

Personnel: Vis: Frank Gratkowski (alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet) and Misha Mengelberg (piano)