Cross Border Trio

New Directions
Circumvention 046

Looking in My Ear
Creative Sources CS 063 CD

Two trios made up of one non-American and two Yanks have, in truth, very little in common besides geographical make up have and almost identical instrumentation. Yet both the Cross Border Trio (CBT) and Tripwire have come up with distinct strategies to meet the challenge of stripped-down improvising using only non-chordal instruments.

Hailing from Southern California in two cases – tenor saxophonist Jason Robinson and bassist Rob Thorsen – and Mexico – percussionist Paquito Villa – in the other, the members of CBT use reduced musical parameters and collective improvisation to make their points. Still the Jazz conventions of head, solos and theme recap are very obvious on the 10 tracks which make up this 78 [!] minute disc.

Also comprised of 10 tracks, but less than two-third’s New Directions’ length, Looking in My Ear is much different sonically. That’s because the trio members – Brooklyn-based percussionist Jeff Arnal, German alto saxophonist Lars Scherzberg and American-in-Hamburg, bassist John Hughes – are as committed to Free Music as CBT is to Free Jazz. Dexterously employing the outermost limits of their instruments, the sound world of the Tripwire three utilizes extended techniques not only for novel interactions, but also as a way to remove many of the timbral distinctions between string, reed and vibrating surface.

Overall Tripwire has a slight edge here, but mostly because the more conventional – in this context – CBT has come up with too much of a good thing. Its CD could have lost one-quarter of its length without compromising its sound. As it is, all hands on both discs produce fine work on original compositions mostly from trio members as well as in CBT’s case, three memorable lines from someone named “D. Taba”.

On New Directions Mexico City-born Villa, who studied in Cuba and California as well as his homeland, expresses those lessons well. He uses variations of batá and conga timbres, or perhaps the instruments themselves, to give many of CBT’s pieces a distinctive Hispanic tinge without resorting to stereotypical Latin rhythms.

This concept is put to good use on “No More Net”, one of the Taba tunes, where Villa rattles percussion behind a walking bass line. The piece itself follows a classic path, with Robinson’s a capella flutter-tonguing introducing shuffling Cuban percussion beats, then accelerating to trade timbral slurs with Thorsen’s arco bass.

Although both based in San Diego, the bassist’s and the saxophonist’s background couldn’t be more different. Member of the Trummerflora Collective for creative music, Robinson, who is also an academic, has collaborated with such so-called outside players as German bassist Peter Kowald and trombonist George Lewis. On the other hand, Thorsen, a jobbing musician, has backed everyone from composer Marvin Hamlisch and singer Lorna Luft to jazz legends such as saxophonist Charles McPherson and drummer Louis Bellson.

On pieces like his own “Sad Guy”, Thorsen transcends the mainstream however, stopping and sliding back-and-forth on the strings and emphasizing guitar-like comping that dovetails into interaction with the saxophonist’s honking lines and double-tongued agitato.

“Red Light”, another of the bassist’s compositions, allows Robinson even more scope and is reminiscent of Sonny Rollins’ work with similarly constituted trios. Using mostly the lower parts of his range, the saxophonist tries on different tempos and pitches for size, as well as utilizing chromatic layering and speedy double tonguing. Meanwhile, his solos remain more legato than modal or staccato.

On other Taba originals, “Camarillo’s Daughter” and “Think of Juan” – note the jokey, fake-Latin title – the three graft dissonant intermezzos onto expected Jazz formulae. An Arabic tinge enlivens Robinson’s hyperactive blowing on the later tune – maybe Juan resides near the Persian Gulf, rather than the Gulf of Mexico – which precedes Villa’s soloing with a variety of paradiddles and ruffs until a pointed drum roll brings back the deeper-toned head.

Rollins-like trills and glottal punctuation distinguish the former composition, an andante ballad, which is held together with the bassist’s blunt, four-to-the-floor beats. When Thorsen expands his steady ostinato to ratcheting spherical stops, the drummer melodiously rattles chains, as Robinson’s final swoops are built up with double-tongued screams.

Scherzberg never pushes his sax’s voice to that height on Looking in My Ear. An additional difference is while most of New Directions’ tunes are andante, the majority of those on the other CD’s are adagio, the better to fit with the Free Improv ethos.

Besides having refined the cooperative style on two earlier CDs in this formation, all three of Tripwire’s players have extensive, international Free Music experience. Hughes, for instance, plays with the German Improv trio Propele di Katsa and Italian pianist Alberto Braida; Scherzberg works with Hamburg-based trumpeter Birgit Ulher and Berlin-based multi-reedist Wolfgang Fuchs; and Arnal gigs with German pianist Dietrich Eichmann and American pianist Gordon Beeferman.

Tossing aside the conventions of both head-solo-head and the divide among soloists and accompanists, the trio operates most frequently in triple counterpoint, with inchoate ideas sometime brought to fruition – and sometimes not. One defining characteristic is displayed on “A Whisper Unknown” where extended silent patches segment the buzzing arco bass lines, carefully positioned floor tom and chime echoes plus horn squeaks and squawks.

With a particular avoidance of a defining, steady beat and a reliance on oscillated timbres that expand each instrument’s conventional limits, the three also manage to sonically confuse individual tones. Pitter-patter manipulations and soothing pulses may arise from the percussionist or by striking the double bass’s wood; while saxophone lines resemble harmonica exhalations or the spetrofluctuation associated with brass as unambiguously as they do reed vibratos. Additionally, reed tongue slaps often perfectly partner wooden blocks clip clops and striated arco tones.

Another instructive instance of this sonic mishmash occurs on “The Precipice Inside”, almost 12 minutes of subtle pulsations. Sul ponticello bass strokes rest on top of minimalist drum flams and rebounds, as Scherzberg highlights tongue-stopping twitters and hisses colored air through his horn’s body tube. Eventually spittle-directed, darting pitches join the bowed bass line and lightly resonated drum beats for a finale.

While neither of these mixed American-and-other combos could be confused with the other, each articulates a blueprint for contemporary trio improvisation. Eventually, when the CBT’s subsequent discs appear, it’s possible that this initial CD’s reliance on tradition – and excessive length – will be modified so that subsequent efforts will be as noteworthy as Tripwire’s third disc is here.

— Ken Waxman


Track Listing: New: 1. Hell in Hat Yai 2. No More Net 3. Shorter then Miles 4. 17thand Capp 5. Camarillo’s Daughter 6. Disarray 7. Sad Guy 8. Think of Juan 9. Conclusion/Beginning 10. Red Light

Personnel: New: Jason Robinson (tenor saxophone); Rob Thorsen (bass) and Paquito Villa (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Looking: 1. Constellations 2. Descent 3. The Precipice Inside 4. Hearing Device 5. Altitude 6. Your Peculiarity 7. A Whisper Unknown 8. Echo from (a) Void 9. Irradiate 10. Invisible Rays

Personnel: Looking: Lars Scherzberg (alto saxophone); John Hughes (bass) and Jeff Arnal (percussion)