Marc Baron/Bertrand Denzler/Jean-Luc Guionnet/Stéphane Rives

Propagations
Potlatch P107

ROVA

The Juke Box Suite

Not Two MW 786-2

Evan Parker & Ned Rothenberg

Live At Roulette

Animul ANI 106

With unaccompanied group reed sessions now commonplace in improvised music, the challenge remains to make them more than technical exercises. Each of these notable CD succeeds in doing so; but each does so in an individual manner.

As could be expected from its populist title, The Juke Box Suite is probably the most lyrical of the many CDs from the Bay area-based ROVA quartet, which arguably pioneered the four saxophone concept in improv. Propagations, on the other hand, features a quartet of young French saxophonists, who have only performed in this formation since 2003. Completely eschewing the song form, the group’s one long performance uses textures, layering and arrangements that use reeds as sound sources rather than melody extensions. A duo, rather than a quartet like those on the other CDs, Brooklyn-based Ned Rothenberg and London-based Evan Parker exhibit their mastery of the multi-reed form by blending different combinations of Rothenberg’s three reeds and Parker’s two on six live performances.

Each Parker-Rothenberg coupling produces a different sonic. The alto (Rothenberg) and tenor (Parker) saxophone mix on “Who Asked Racine”, for instance, ricochets between very brisk and very slack timbres. Intertwined, contrapuntal and augmented with held note that are hocketed or snorted, the continuous reflective lines seem initially to be only Parker’s. But following Rothenberg rappelling down the scale with accompanying trills, the extended timbres bring both to warm modulations by the conclusion.

Parker’s characteristic circular breathing on soprano saxophone gets a work out on “Brew for the Birds”, although Rothenberg’s tongue-slapping clarinet work reaches an equal level of high-pitched coloratura. The note aspiration is such that the two twitter and chirp counterlines at one another, eventually negating any spare pauses left in the interaction. The clarinetist’s whistling legato phrasing perfectly connects to Parker intense, staccato vibrations.

In contrast, “The Artist’s Response” with Rothenberg on alto saxophone and Parker on soprano saxophone opens up the sound field with overblown trills and tongue-stopping contrapuntal pulses. With the output expressed in polytones as well as palindromes, this curvaceous intermezzo features so many circling, winding and gradated timbres that not only is it difficult to distinguish one saxman from the other, but at times the two sound like an entire sax section.

That’s something that may not be as evident on Propagations, even though the all the horns for a saxophone section are present. It may be because each reedist has evolved both a microtonal and macro-tonal playing style. Alto saxophonist Jean-Luc Guionnet and tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler are in the minimalist Hubbub band, but Guionnet also plays Energy Music with The Fish, and Denzler has recorded with more outgoing types like pianist John Wolf Brennan. Alto saxophonist Marc Baron has recorded as part of clarinetist Louis Sclavis’ band. Only soprano saxophonist Stéphane Rives is a strict microtonalist – at least on record.

Nuanced and layered, the collective improvisation on this CD relies most frequently on breaths forced through the horns’ body tubes as well as the siren-like textures created by intense reed biting. As the moderato piece evolves, complex loops of sound are used in such a way that the tonal centre constantly shifts, subtly exposing shards, sparkles and sprinkles of multiphonics which are as much in the background as the foreground.

Individual saxophones announce themselves through peeps, glottal punctuation, key percussion and tongue slaps. But as much as fortissimo but brief reed squeals are the norm, so are extended pauses. Infrequently as well, the four take up the role of a conventional sax section with one soloist performing individual reed gymnastics as around him the other three undulate overtones that reach organ-like cushioning tones.

By the piece’s final variation the slowly oscillating pulses do reach past fortissimo to occupy the entire sound field. Coalescing as one solid mass, the timbre moves in a straight line, studded with balanced growls, flattement vibrato and pulsating glissandi. Eventually it seems as if all the oxygen remaining in the studio has almost been sucked into the bells of the horns.

After showcasing broken-octave accelerated tones from each saxophone in succession, the four reach a crescendo of irregularly vibrated quadruple counterpoint that then diminishes to a finale of barely-there body tube echoes, metallic puffs and ear-straining, ever-lengthening then conclusive silences.

Protracted silences aren’t really programmed on The Juke Box Suite, but you wouldn’t expect this from the seven tracks – all composed by alto and baritone saxophonist Jon Raskin – that honor Balkan, Afro-Cuban and African music, and individually one of the fathers of modern Brazilian music; a writer who was both a socialist and a Yiddishist; a Finnish folk super group; big city R&B and rock music; and a German-American minimalist painter.

With all due respect to the composer, the dedications in the titles seem to promise more disparity among the tunes than the music itself. That said, the seven are individually and collectively rhythmically exciting and improvisationally sophisticated. Listen, for instance to the striking polyphonic cries on “Juke Box Niggum” from either Bruce Ackley’s or Larry Och’s tenor saxophone, which creates dancing, ecstatic trills, ornamented by pumping slurs from Raskin’s baritone saxophone.

Contrast that with the singing sopranino lines and tenor saxophone obbligatos which push against one another contrapuntally on “Juke Box Choro”. Again the baritone provides the bottom, tenor and alto (Steve Adams), chime in with mid-range trills as Ochs’ sopranino outlines the fervently romantic theme. Then there’s “Juke Box Värtinnä”. A delicate, almost madrigal-like song, the arrangement isolates different timbres so completely that each saxophone can be identified within the polyphonic performance.

Oddly enough, the liveliest track, the nearly 10-minute “Juke Box Detroit” is dedicated to The White Stripes rather than more appropriately John Lee Hooker, the MC5 or Tamla-Motown. Still the urban grit of the city appears to be reflected in the baritonist’s tongue stops and slaps and the tenorist’s rapid-fire riffing. Finally after the other horns move in counterpoint to guttural bari riffs, the extended shout chorus climaxes with all the horns tonguing in different tempi, leading to a restatement of the melody – which is also deconstructed as it’s sounded.

Sophisticated, coalesced saxophone science – and art – is demonstrated on each of these notable discs.

— Ken Waxman

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Track Listing: Roulette: 1. Who Asked Racine? 2. Brew for the Birds 3. Stick, Twist or Bust 4. On Alto On Tenor 5. The Artist’s Response 6. On Core En Cours

Personnel: Roulette: Ned Rothenberg (alto saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet) and Evan Parker (soprano and tenor saxophone)

Track Listing: Juke Box: 1. Juke Box Afro Balkan 2. Juke Box Mambo 3. Juke Box Niggum 4. Juke Box Detroit 5. Juke Box Hang Up 6. Juke Box Choro 7. Juke Box Värtinnä

Personnel: Juke Box: Bruce Ackley (soprano and tenor saxophones); Steve Adams (alto saxophone); Larry Ochs (sopranino and tenor saxophones) and Jon Raskin (alto and baritone saxophones)

Track Listing: Propagations: 1. Propagations

Personnel: Propagations: Stéphane Rives (soprano saxophone); Marc Baron and Jean-Luc Guionnet (alto saxophones) and Bertrand Denzler tenor saxophone)