Amado/Zíngaro/Ulrich/Filiano

Surface
European Echoes 002

Photographer as well as saxophonist, Lisbon-based Rodrigo Amado frames this CD as a salute to the work of one lensman he admires: Stephen Shore known for his deadpan depiction of banal American scenes and object. Decorating the booklet with four of his own photos of New York, Amado combines with three string players for a restrained interface which is much more low-key than anything you’d find in Manhattan.

Perhaps reflects the incongruity of recording 13 free improvisations in Portugal’s capital that try to create a sound picture of everyday New York, the participants are split between New York and Lisbon residents. Besides Amado who plays alto and baritone saxophone, the other Portuguese is viola and violinist Carlos Zíngaro. The two Americans are cellist Tomas Ulrich and bassist Ken Filiano.

The saxophonist has recorded with Zíngaro and Filiano in the Lisbon Improvisation Players (LIP). Yet the presence of Ulrich’s cello and the absence of drums and another horn – which in the LIP has included such certified New York downtowners as trombonist Steve Swell and drummer Lou Grassi – means that there’s a tendency toward romantic prettiness in the performance which is in variance with the unvarnished images of both photographers. Luckily Ulrich and Zíngaro especially use extended techniques, both pizzicato and arco, to bring unexpected strength to unison harmonies, as well as playing pointed solos. As powerful an anchor here as he has been for players ranging from multi-reedist Vinny Golia to trumpeter Dennis González, Filiano’s solidly rhythmic walking mostly negates the need for a percussionist.

To this end the string work, while sometimes gently vibrated and aiming for bel canto is heard more-often-than-not staccato and in double or triple counterpoint with the other strings, rather than evolving in harmonic unison. Squirming sul tasto tones saw back and forth from the lower-pitched strings, which often roll, rumble and scratch to mix it up with mellow tongue flutters from the baritone saxophone. Elsewhere Zíngaro’s spiky, squeaking coloration evolves mano à mano with Amado’s strident alto saxophone vibrations. In essence the reedist calls on different models for each of his horns. His mid-range growls and snorty, but very tonal intermezzos, suggest Gerry Mulligan. Meanwhile his disorderly trills and tongue flutters seem to relate to early Ornette Coleman or Jackie McLean of the mid-1960s, when McLean was enamored with Coleman’s style of the time.

What this ultimately means for the performances is that between the saxophonist’s split tones and side-slipping plus the spiccato and sliding multiphonics created by the strings, enough connective coloration is exposed to keep any of the pieces from dragging. A consistent level of fortissimo runs and abrasive counterpoint among the foursome also introduces unexpected passages of eventually connective fissures.

The main drawback with the CD however, is that even the lengthiest track seem slightly unfinished. It’s as if the four finally turned to fortissimo cadenzas, creaking cross textures or concurrent thumping and pumping actions to liven up an inconclusive finale.

Taking the CD title literally, Surface doesn’t define the level of improvisations on the disc. Much of it is notable and interesting. But in order to attain with this group the same level of excitement and commitment each of the four has achieved individually or with different aggregations, digging much deeper into the improvisational conception would be necessary.

— Ken Waxman

Track List: 1. Uncommon Places 2. Natural Bridge 3. The City 4. Luzzara 5. Calculators 6. Room 28 Surface Suite: 7. Eat 8. Talk 9. Look 10. Sleep 11. Walk 12. Trail’s End 13. Art is Truth

Personnel: Rodrigo Amado (alto and baritone saxophones); Carlos Zíngaro (violin and viola); Tomas Ulrich (cello) and Ken Filiano (bass)