Michael Vlatkovich

ThankYou Records MV013



Jazz Werkstatt JW 046

Rumination in the ‘bone yard; these notable sessions revel in the multiplicity of sounds that can be extracted from only three instruments. Luckily the two bass-drum-trombone ensembles here bring a similar understanding of proper dynamics, although the strategies are antipodal.

Seven extended compositions by Portland, Ore.-based trombonist Michael Vlatkovich make up Three3’s session, while 14 of the 17 [!] tracks on SQUAKK were either written, co-written or improvised by trombonist Christof Thewes of Berlin. A long-time associate of multi-reedman Vinny Golia, Vlatkovich has done everything from co-leading an ensemble with a poet; playing in a combo with cornetist Bobby Bradford; performing on film soundtracks like The Tempest; and backing pop singers such as Bryan Adams. Bassist Kent McLagen has recorded with trumpeter Ron Miles and guitarist Bill Frisell, while drummer Chris Lee is a local time-keeper.

Saarland-born Thewes teaches jazz at a music conservatory as well as gigging as part of pianist Uli Gumpert’s Workshop Band, Globe Unity Orchester and Lacy Pool. Drummer Michael Griener also teaches while gigging with Gumpert and saxophonist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky among others. A member of Monk’s Casino with Globe Unity leader, pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, bassist Jan Roder also plays in Gumpert’s band plus is part of the Die Enttäuschung quartet.

Taking fewer than 50 minutes to run through all the music on SQUAKK, Thewes puts himself firmly in the advanced lineage of German trombonist like Albert Mangelsdorff and the Bauer brothers. Certainly his vocalized braying syllables, slithering cries, harsh honks and strident whistles are impressive. At the same time his tremolo flutter-tonguing and rubato exploration of pure air blown through the horn’s lead pipe link his sonic excavations to those tried by minimalist New music types as well.

Tongue acrobatics and shading may be his stock-in-trade – especially on the briefer tunes. When he’s not, for instance, squealing on “Not”, his moderato tone suggests the capillary sophistication of Tyree Glenn or Vic Dickinson, especially when Griener shatters cymbal beats and Roder strums arpeggios around him. With sonic alchemy, Thewes’ horn timbre can sound like that of Benny Goodman’s clarinet tones on “Dladlidlum”, while on this tune the others contribute to this resemblance by moving through Gene Krupa-like snare pops and Jo Jones brush work on the drummer’s part, to slapping Pops Foster-like on the bass strings or harmonize arco lines with humming à la Slam Stewart on the bassist’s part.

This respect for the tradition doesn’t stop the three from extending it as well. On “Bulyah-daht” for example, Thewes’ pitch-swelling and vibrating growls join in broken octave concordance with Griener’s rebounds and ruffs in semi-march time. Elsewhere, Griener could be tap-dancing on his drum skins on “Strange Suite”, until Roder’s sul ponticello squeaks and Thewes’ capillary warbles join the percussionist’s brush-propelled rebounds in triple counterpoint. Finally there’s “Puzzle”, where the trombonist’s tongue-flutters dissolves into barely-there air wisps. That is until cross-crunched cymbal smacks lead Thewes to blast his way to fortissimo, with the tones reverberating onto themselves.

More poised and mercurial, Three3 operates closer to outright jazz styling, but lacks none of the verve – not to mention squawks – of SQUAKK. Lee especially appears to be more than self-effacing though, adding a steady clip-clop, clanking rim shots or Latinized inferences at different points in the program, but elsewhere remaining in the background. McLagen picks up some of this slack with steady walking or stop-time emphasis. But on the whole, the mental image of an overweight individual timidly attempting a terpsichorean movement is reflected by the percussionist in more than the first tune title, “The Fat Dance”.

Overall, it’s Vlatkovich inimitable technical panache which sonically illuminates most of the tracks. Fond of interjecting his pet licks into solos as often as say, Eric Dolphy did in similar situations, his sound is instantly identifiable. Thus a piece like “Where is Wanda Skutnick”, at the very end of the CD, benefits from the same facile introduction of contrapuntal glissandi, intense note clusters and a steeplechase from diminuendo to crescendo, as he displays elsewhere. His hocketing and brassy slithers always impress. However it’s beneficial that the CD doesn’t extend much past 46 minutes or another soloist would have been needed for contrast. Prowess shouldn’t be confused with bigheadedness, but Vlatkovich’s skill makes Three3 more of a soloist-plus-rhythm date than SQUAKK.

That means tracks such as “Length of the Tail Doesn't Really Matter, But It Does Have to Be Bushy” or “Neighborhood Beasts Let Their Hair Down” are amiable as well as loquaciously titled, but are often more about noticeable technique train-spotting than musical satiation. On the former, McLagen’s steady walking bass and positioned bowing plus Lee’s rolls and strokes provide a pleasant backdrop to the trombonist’s tone jumps, exaggerated slurs and rugged vocalism. And the later tune showcases Vlatkovich’s gliding grace notes from various slide positions as well as burnished tremolo tones. But here, the other two seem to be merely along for the ride.

Members in good standing of the short list of innovative contemporary trombonists both Thewes and Vlatkovich can be definitely praised. SQUAKK however is more of a group achievement than the other disc.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Three3: 1. The Fat Dance 2. Somehow We Can't Catch a Glimpse of Our Future in a Passing Train Window Train Window 3. Length of the Tail Doesn't Really Matter, But It Does Have to Be Bushy 4. Neighborhood Beasts Let Their Hair Down 5. Model Planetarian 6. The Man Who Walks… 7. Where is Wanda Skutnick?

Personnel: Three3: Michael Vlatkovich (trombone); Kent McLagen (bass) and Chris Lee (drums)

Track Listing: SQUAKK: 1. Confiture torture I 2. Schlimmer geht nimmer 3. Dark Mingus II 4. Strange Suite 5. Dladlidlum 6. Por Celan 7. Ying & Yan 8. Confiture torture II 9. Schlimmer geht immer 10. Puzzle 11. Die garage 12. Not 13. Blue Chilli Out 14. Capitulation Miniature 15. Bulyah-daht 16. Aussentreppe 17. Confiture torture III

Personnel: SQUAKK: Christof Thewes (trombone); Jan Roder (bass) and Michael Griener (drums)