Alan Skidmore/Mike Osborne/John Surman

Ogun OGCD 019

El Niño
Creative Works CW 1048

More than 30 years separate these sessions, which are designed to highlight the versatility of all-reed trios. While both are effective, it’s fascinating to note how new techniques, new musical input and alternating among additional instruments now allow the 21st Century group to push the sonic boundaries that much further.

Revolutionary in its day, SOS may have been the first regularly constituted all-reed improv combination; its 1973 formation predating both the World Saxophone Quartet and ROVA. With its catchy name created by uniting the first initial of each member’s last name, the combo consisted of three of Britain’s most accomplished FreeBop players.

Mike Osborne on alto saxophone and percussion, who has been incapacitated by mental illness for many years, was an over-riding presence at that time, working with his own group and in bans such as pianist Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath (BOB) and bassist Harry Miller’s Isipingo, to name two. Alan Skidmore, who plays tenor saxophone, drums and percussion here, also played with BOB and a trio with drummer Tony Oxley around that time. Now a much more mainstream soloist, his international fame results from his association with singer Georgie Fame since 1970. The third player has also changed immeasurably. Today the sort of inward-looking soloist whose highly burnished, somewhat chilly improvisations epitomize the ECM label, John Surman was less formal 30 years ago. Playing baritone and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet and synthesizers, he sets the tenor of the band’s eight creations

However, the use of percussion and synthesizers on SOS hints that the pioneering trio members were still hesitant facing an unsuspecting audience with only their horns in their mouths.

These sorts of concerns had vanished by 2005 when El Niño was recorded in Switzerland. Not only is there not a non-oral instrument to be heard, but each of the participants is also a veteran of previous all-reed sessions.

Brooklyn’s Ned Rothenberg, for instance, who plays alto saxophone, Bb and bass clarinet and shakuhachi here, recorded a duo CD with tenor saxophonist Evan Parker and was a member of New Winds with flautist Robert Dick and clarinetist J.D. Parran. He also leads his own band Sync.

Uster, Switzerland-based Peter A. Schmid, who on this CD works out on Eb, bass and contrabass clarinets and sub-contrabass saxophone, has been featured in reed duos and reed quintets. Fascinated by subterranean tones he recorded a whole CD with September Winds within an empty water cistern in Zürich. In real life he’s a gastroenterology specialist dealing with diseases of the stomach, intestine and liver.

Emphasizing the new currents that have been introduced into Free Music Matthias Ziegler, who plays C flute, bass and contrabass flute, Matusi and quarter-tone flute, has a so-called serious as well as improv background. Principal flutist with the Zürich Chamber Orchestra, and Collegium Novum Zürich, where he worked with composers Mauricio Kagelr and George Crumb, he has also toured with Swiss percussionist Pierre Favre and American bassist Mark Dresser.

These cross currents couldn’t be imagined in 1975 when SOS was taped. Perhaps that’s why the band begins its recital with a-less-than-four-minute “Country Dance”. A courtly, pastoral rondo, it features trilling exchanges among the three that only latterly turn to triple counterpoint harmonic expression in broken chords.

Surman’s synthesizer pulsations and outer-space wiggles kick in on “Wherever I Am”, followed by pseudo-jazz piano licks and Skidmore slapping Bop-style drumming. Although Osborne creates a soaring double-timed alto solo, accelerated envelopes of electric-guitar-like delay that are also heard, make the result sound like what would have happened if Marion Brown at his freest recorded with Mwandishi-era Herbie Hancock.

This sort of sonic schizophrenia is apparent throughout the CD, with the fusion paraphernalia of high-frequency vamps plus slurpy sound washes from the synthesizer often detracting from the first-class reed work. Perhaps most sympathetic use of the electronics is on “Calypso”, when kinetic tinctures and pulsating vamps open up the composition to unison horn work and call-and-response pecking from the saxes. Eventually, as the reeds’ echoing split tones criss-cross one another, jiggling, low-frequency keyboard comping reflects the sax work undulating above it.

More affecting is the combined and individual acoustic work, with Osborne most prominent. With the other horns elaborating rustic chordal harmonies, there are points where his fortissimo trills and double-tonguing atop reed ostinato suggest a fanciful meting between Charlie Parker and Alan O’Dale, the singing troubadour of Robin Hood’s Merry Men. With his baritone sax and bass clarinet frequently worrying basement timbres, Surman still brings unexpected freedom to his pedal-point soloing. Often overshadowed by the others’ playing, Skidmore melodically pushes aside Osborne’s pinched alto line and Surman’s low-pitched ostinato on “Ist” to elaborate the melody in an affecting solo. Eventually all three decelerate the tune in triple counterpoint.

Triple counterpoint is just one of the many extended techniques on show on El Niño. The variety is such that Schmid’s medieval forbearers in physiology may have attributed transmogrifying qualities to the near fluid humors exhibited by the three. Other patterns include contrabass clarinet warbles that sound like a bowed double bass, discursive asides that roughen swelled flute passages, hocketing ornamental timbres, mouthpiece vibrations and reed pops plus wide-vibrato chalumeau clarinet tones paired with tubax snorts. Although some timbral intersection may be harsh and sharp pitched, others are harmonically cohesive.

For example, instant compositions such as “SchRotZ #5” find the three operating as if they are a contrapuntal string trio. Gentle mid-tempo clarinet lines intersect with coloratura flutter tongued reed arpeggios as glottal tongue stops and slaps from the contra bass instrument low. As individual motions purposely resemble a spiccato string pluck and vibrating body tube textures refract individual oscillations, hollow-sounding flute vibrations ripple around them. When a mid-point variation finds all three exploding into a contrapuntal collection of chirping tones and rubato trills, Ziegler soon introduces a snake charmer-like resonance, while the others stick to more conventional counterpoint and half hearted honks.

At more than 15½ minutes, “SchRotZ #3” is even most impressive. Beginning with reverberating, chalumeau quarter tones from all, it soon accelerates as contrapuntal square-dance-calling notes pass fore and aft. When Rothenberg and Schmid break into mid-range double counterpoint with tongue slaps and quivering pitch vibrations, the hollow pulsations from Ziegler’s contrabass flute adds a bent-note ostinato. With this solid foundation in place, the other two are able to vibrate melodic overtones and circular mouth movements and shift the tonal centre. Growling finally gives way to distant whistles, watery tongue stops, reed bites and altissimo chirps that alternate with shrill pitches then suddenly cease.

Advances in technical prowess and improvisational cooperation make El Niño the more notable session. But SOS is just as valuable, especially for those who admire the work of any of the participants. Schmid, Ziegler and Rothenberg’s fluid free form – not to mention the playing of many other reedists – wouldn’t be possible without the research and experimentation of a band like SOS.

— Ken Waxman


Track Listing: SOS: 1. Country Dance 2. Wherever I Am 3. Chordary 4. Where’s Junior 5. Cycle Motion 6. Ist 7. Goliath 8. Calypso

Personnel: SOS: Mike Osborne (alto saxophone and percussion); Alan Skidmore (tenor saxophone, drums and percussion) and John Surman (baritone and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet and synthesizers)

Track Listing: Niño: 1. SchRotZ #1 2. SchRotZ #2 3. SchRotZ #3 4. ZiSch #2 5. SchRotZ #14 6. ShakuhaZiSch 7. ZiRoth #1 8. SchRotZ #5

Personnel: Niño: Ned Rothenberg (alto saxophone, Bb and bass clarinet and shakuhachi); Peter A. Schmid (Eb, bass and contrabass clarinets and subcontrabass saxophone [Bb tubax]) and Matthias Ziegler (C flute, bass and contrabass flute, Matusi and quarter-tone flute)