January 20, 2008
Ratascan Records BRD 059
Cold Bleak Heat
Family Vineyard FV41
Encapsulating the differences between West Coast and East Coast Free Improv, these quartet sessions illustrate how dissimilar sounding identically constituted combos can be.
Consisting of both compositional and improvisational material, the 12 tracks of Quartet are individually shaped by score and graphic elements organized by the band leader, long-time ROVA quartet member saxophonist Jon Raskin Rougher and wilder in contrast, Simitu’s six tracks seem to be nourished by the highly emotional and theatrical Energy Music which flourished in the 1970s.
Considering that one of Cold Bleak Heat (CBH)’s main voices – Connecticut-based saxophonist Paul Flaherty – has been immersed in this sort of ardent improvising since that time period, partially explains CBH’s emotional style. Theatricalism is added because two of the other band members – bassist Matt Heyner and drummer Chris Corsano – are immersed in indie-rock as well as improvisation. In contrast, trumpeter Greg Kelley is more often found in sound-oriented, lower-case improv circles.
Oddly enough Raskin’s Bay-Area-centred band mates have similar backgrounds. Trumpeter Liz Allbee plays in experimental rock bands; percussionist Gino Robair has recorded with everyone from minimalist free musicians and composer Lou Harrison to rock singer Ton Waits; while bassist George Cremaschi’s list of collaborators range from British saxophonist Evan Parker to rock/jazz guitarist Nels Cline.
Obviously such experienced folk provide positive input on Quartet. But it’s also clear that Raskin, who also composes for film and dance projects, and whose associates range from minimalist composer Terry Riley to jazzer Tim Berne, not only has a more singular vision than that which arises from CBH, but also has greater control of the material performed.
Consider pieces like “Qupe” and “African Tulip” for instance. On the former, staccato flights from both horn teeter on top of Cremaschi’s solid arco work, further colored by Robair’s tubular bell-like resonations. When the percussionist’s rhythm extensions turn to irregular flams and knocks and the bassist reverberates thicker pulses, the saxophonist’s response is outputting wide and shaking reed tones.
Although filled with unexpected bumps, the later tune is cohesively connective, as Robair’s nimble, ping-ponging strokes set up spurts of plunger tones from Allbee and tongue-stops from Raskin. After Allbee’s seconding obbligato is inflated into circular trills and bubbles, the saxophonist’s reed slurs and slurps combine with her vibrating tremolo tonguing to cement the previous divide into unison polyphony.
Probably the tracks which best illustrate the band’s strategy however are back-to-back “Kandinsky”, a Raskin composition and “Sounding Barometer Reading”, a group improv. Weighing the results, the creations defy anyone to distinguish the composer-defined from the instantly created pieces.
“Kandinsky” features Cremaschi’s bass-string stropping, Robair’s drumstick-on-cymbal grinding and spittle-encrusted braying from Allbee – all adumbrating the saxophone’s swoops and split tones. Introduced with a reed honk and a human laugh, the second tune merely boosts the textures available with a variety of brass kisses, growls and scrapes; tongue sprinting from Daffy Duck quacks to polar bear grumbles from the saxophone; and col legno bowing from the bassist. Would Robair’s perfectly pitched miniature bell and/or cymbal slaps that guide the animal-like trumpet brays and whistling reed bites sound any different if they were scored?
Although Cremaschi and Robair are listed as also using electronics, there are only a few instances when triggered, machine-created wave forms can be sensed.
Old School to the extreme, Flaherty probably would react like a medieval priest faced with a heretic if confronted with electronics. While Kelley and Heyner at least have worked out an accommodation to quasi-instruments such as laptop computers elsewhere, the fervor associated with CBH’s performance could literally overheat those plastic hunks into melt-down mode if machine-made kilowatts were introduced. Staccato, sibilant and studded with double and triple broken counterpoint lines crossing and re-crossing one another, at junctures each member of CBH is given enough space to express himself a capella before cumulatively weaving a polyphonic whole cloth.
The saxophonist’s repertoire encompasses double-tongued shattered intonation, conclusive foghorn swells, crying and cawing banshee timbres plus altissimo smears. Pressured triplets, Donald Ayler-like smears and hand-muted shrills are Kelley’s contribution; Heyner moves from pitch-stabbing chording and spiccato runs to ostinato thumps; while Corsano mulches the results of backbeat bounces, bass drum rumbling, paradiddle extension and cymbal clapping. Throughout, the quartet appears to be building up to – and descending down from – the more than 21½ -minute “Mugged by a Glacier”, which is rather like an extended crescendo mixed with slight balladic echoes.
With the piece initially adagio, Kelley’s Harmon-muted runs gradually stretch the tempo as Flaherty’s reed tone coarsens and smears. Plucking and pumping dense bull fiddle notes and percussion press rolls provide the ostinato as the brassman’s timbres dart bird-like among the stop-time, nearly solipsistic sound shards emanating from the saxophone. Warbling and burbling, as the tempo increases, the trumpeter injects open-horn triplets and the reedist snorts accelerated split tones. Backbeats and press rolls from Corsano are the bonding glue that keeps the horn textures from escaping into the ozone. Reshaping the others’ thematic contributions Heyner suddenly slows down the pace three-quarters of the way through for a high-pitched sul ponticello solo with razor-sharp strokes that almost slice through the strings as they’re manipulated. Flaherty then contributes a dramatic moderato reading of the head spelled by plunger tones from Kelley. Soon the four are back into high-speed chromatic echoes driven by rustle and pop from Corsano and steady pounding from Heyner.
Depending on the person’s preference for musical structure and reason or deconstruction and passion, either session should impress the Free Jazz listener. While each illustrates a contradictory approach, perhaps geographically located, both are equally valid.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Quartet 1. Cracked Earth 2. Sounding Barometer Reading 1 3. African Tulip 4. Swing Sing 5. Kandinsky 6. Sounding Barometer Reading 2 7. Post Card 2 8. Ceilometer Reading 9. Post Card 1 10. Bleckner 11. Disdrometer Reading 12. Qupe
Personnel: Quartet: Liz Allbee (trumpet and percussion); Jon Raskin (alto and baritone saxophones); George Cremaschi (bass and electronics) and Gino Robair (percussion and electronics)
Track Listing: Simitu: 1. The Voice of the People is the Voice of God 2. Should We Destroy the Hubble? 3. Mugged by a Glacier 4. A Pound Cake 5. A White Bandaged Head in the Shadow of Death 6. To Understand All is to Forgive All
Personnel: Simitu: Greg Kelley (trumpet); Paul Flaherty (alto and tenor saxophones); Matt Heyner (bass) and Chris Corsano (drums)