Urs Leimgruber

13 Pieces for Saxophone
Leo Records CD LR 498

Martin Küchen

Homo Sacer

SOFA Sillón 4

John Butcher

The Geometry of Sentiment (2004/6)

Emanem 4142

Soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophone pulsations along with modulated feedback and literal instrument deconstruction are featured in various permutations on this trio of top-flight solo discs from European practitioner of reed wizardry. The paramount non-specialist appeal of these sessions is tracing how individualistically each old hand – or should that be fingers and mouth – approaches his art.

Swiss-born Urs Leimgruber is also known for his work with the likes of French bassist Joëlle Léandre and French pianist Jacques Demierre; Küchen is a Swede who is in the Exploding Customer quartet and other bands; John Butcher of the United Kingdom is a Londoner, who has traded ideas with a multitude of improvisers in North America, Europe and Japan.

Over the past two decades Butcher has developed several performance strategies for the multitude of solo concerts he gives each year. Besides seeking to sustain spontaneous creations that avoid expected routines, he has experimented with semi-compositional ideas, close-miking and amplified feedback from the saxophone, and creating solos that take into account the characteristic of certain acoustic spaces. All these approaches are illustrated on The Geometry of Sentiment. Three of the tracks come from performance venues in London or Paris, while the others involve respectively, an enormous geometrical locale created from a former stone mine in Japan, and an abandoned, near-cylindrical gas storage facility in Germany.

Tunnel-like, the cylindrical space used on “Trägerfrequenz” in Germany not only isolates supportive timbres that reflect Butcher’s initial escalating slurs, but bounce them back as a secondary parakeet-like whistle that almost replaces the initial tone. Eventually harder and shriller vibrations are revealed as reverberating, tunnel-elongated reed bites and tongue slaps.

Similarly, Butcher takes full advantage of the polyphonic air pockets and echoes exposed during his two Japanese performances. Still with his conception more sequenced and polyphonic, his playing attains a different form, especially on “Second Zizoku”. Using multi-thematic line, variations transform from a simple forward-moving harmonic structure to fortissimo snorts and slurs plus rough key pops. They quicken into colored air and blurry arpeggios, and conclude with triple-tonguing and squeaking overtones, some of which vibrate up into dog-whistle territory.

“A Short Time to Sing” recorded in London not only highlights tongue-slapping effervescent reverberations, but also showcases key percussion that contrapuntally becomes as necessary to the performance as the reed tones themselves. Eventually amplified feedback triggers piercing whistles that ricochet into themselves for additional sonics.

The other standout is “Action Theory Blues” – which is no more a blues than General Pervez Musharraf, president of Pakistan, is a democrat. Instead the piece twists and turns a simple melody every which way to eviscerate its very innards. Repeated staccatissimo lines and note clusters move in a circular fashion sometimes creating rubber-heel-on linoleum squeaks that gradually fade into oscillated flat lines.

Also moving from one saxophone to another – alto and baritone (plus pocket radio) in his case –is Küchen. Despite the overtly politicized titles of his five-track program, the reedist insists that his music isn’t programmatic. One has to take him at his word, although many may figure that the pressured overblowing, buzzing reed textures and resonating percussiveness of the tracks here expose anarchistic rage and disgust.

Küchen is definitely humanistic though, as you can hear on “Xuan Ngoc, 23rd of September 1966, in the Evening (Music for Solo Dance)”. Named for a Vietnamese woman whose village was bombed during the Viet Nam war, the nearly-19-minute piece begins with rotating, fortissimo friction and air blowing that is gradually exposed as human sounds when you hear the saxophonist pause and take breaths. Using connective whistles and minimal throat, lip and embouchure movements, the track accelerates to a crescendo of sound loops that could be produced by Küchen blowing through a didjeridoo. Following a two-minute pause, which is then punctuated by a buzzing undercurrent, fortissimo triple-strength expelled air is inflated into a concentrated sound mass made up of reed tones, overtones and undertones. At points reducing the output to mere partials and adding sibilant, guttural pulsations, the finale is marked by rolling circular breathing.

Ngoc eventually married a GI, and became Americanized, but didn’t come to terms with her past until she returned to Viet Nam in the late 1990s. Whether her story intersects with this improv is an open question.

Similar descriptive titles characterize the other tracks. But to return to the realm of absolute music, the important conduit here is Küchen’s reed versatility. The final track for instance features him manipulating reed-and-key percussion and tongue clicks in such a heavily rhythmic manner that he could be playing darbuka drum. Additionally, the constant sound patterning frequently moves from andante to staccato, as if a triggered by an external force. Another track polyphonically matches flutter-tongued smears and a pastoral line so that an antiphonal third sound stream is produced. On the other hand, the first track illuminates such abrasive tongue and breath friction that it’s as if the reedist is trilling his cadences backwards, up from the bell into the saxophone mouthpiece.

In comparison, and using only his tenor saxophone, Leimgruber offers variations on the solo theme with 13 numbered tracks. At various junctures many touch upon the extended techniques used by the other two saxophonists. All in all however, perhaps because of its stark presentation, 13 Pieces for Saxophone appears to be advertising itself as a technical tour-de-force, more attuned to testing the instrument’s limits than in story-telling. Not that this is a drawback if the listener treats the CD as a sort of an aural New Novel, putting aside plot and description for rigorous textural analysis. That said, and to extend the literary metaphor still further, different stylistic patterns are exhibited on different tracks of this collection of short stories.

The final track for instance is an exercise in trenchant pointillist smears and interval dividing, where the echoing tongue slaps, reed bites and corkscrew modulations appear to unroll in different tempos, pitches and degrees of loudness, before concluding with a double-tongued, low-pitched tone. In contrast, “Three” features penetrating piping at a more elevated timbre than a sopranino saxophone produces, simultaneously showcasing enough graduated pitches and tones for an aural ornithological study.

“Eight” exposes staccato and reductionist tongue chirps and rubato overtones. But rather than sounding aviary, these timbres vary between those heard when a plastic toy is squeaked and those of fingers scraping a balloon. Almost visually acrobatic, “Six” has Leimgruber improvising in the fashion of an off-kilter whirling dervish, with his repetitive Orientalized split tones vibrating and oscillating in such a manner that it seems as if a dancer’s circular friction would appear if they were transformed into visuals. Sliding from long tones to semi-tones to quarter tones, the climax involves extended held notes, circular breaths and a conclusive upward trill.

Conversely, “Nine” is built on a single, unbroken screechy line plus singular key percussion manipulation. It’s as if a one-string Afro-Brazilian berimbau was backing a singer whose shrill variations included microscopic oral examinations of the tiniest interval of single breath undulation. Finally there’s “Seven”, the CD’s longest track at nearly 8¾ minutes. Multiphonics turn to multi-tones after a while as the austere, near-silent colored air puffing at the beginning adapts to this refraction. Pitch-sliding pitches expose sopranino-like trills, guttural snorts and choked off timbres.

Adolphe Sax likely didn’t imagine the uses his invention could be put to in a solo context – which, in a way, confirms the historical worth of each of these sessions. However, while this trio of sound explorers readily illuminates the methods by which saxophones become sound chameleons, a familiarity with absolute and abstract music is necessary for full enjoyment.

— Ken Waxman


Track Listing: 13: 1.One 2. Two 3. Three 4. Four 5. Five 6. Six 7. Seven 8. Eight 9. Nine 10. Ten 11. Eleven 12. Twelve 13. Thirteen

Personnel: 13: Urs Leimgruber (tenor saxophone)

Track Listing: Homo: 1. Imperial Music XVI 2. The Infliction of Death 3. Homo Sacer (…and suddenly the Bridge over Troubled Waters stood all in flames) 4. Xuan Ngoc, 23rd of September 1966, in the Evening (Music for Solo Dance) 5. Killing the Houses, Killing the Trees (Imperial Music XX)

Personnel: Homo: Martin Küchen (alto and baritone saxophone and pocket radio)

Listing: Geometry: First Zizoku 2. Second Zizoku 3. A Short Time to Sing* 4. But More So 5. Action Theory Blues 6. Soft Logic 7. Trägerfrequenz

Personnel: Geometry: John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones and amplified feedback*)