Ember

Aurona Arona
Creative Sources CS 167 CD

OM

Willisau

Intakt CD 170

Acknowledged as one of the most accomplished architects of unique reed timbre treatments within improvised music Luzern, Switzerland-based saxophonist Urs Leimgruber’s playing is outstanding in both solo and group situations.

Someone who rarely limits himself when seeking musical partners in ensemble situations, Leimgruber’s strategies are particularly notable on these CD. A nod to the saxophonist’s past, Willisau, recorded in 2008 at the Jazz festival in the Swiss city of the same name, is a reunion gig by the original members of OM, the electrified-Free Jazz quartet which existed from 1972-1982. Recorded four months earlier in Leipzig at another festival, the other CD matches Leimgruber’s skills with those of three younger German players.

Aurona Arona is actually a live follow-up to a fine earlier CD with the same personnel from 2006. Moving force behind Ember and other differently constituted improvised ensembles is keyboardist/percussionist Oliver Schwerdt, who has also recorded with German drummer Günter “Baby” Sommer. However during the two years that separate the Ember discs, Alexander Schubert, who still plays percussion and electronics, has morphed from being a guitarist to a violinist. Furthermore drummer Christian Lillinger has moved to Berlin and now works as part of the Hyperactive Kid trio as well as the bands of clarinetist Rolf Kühn and trombonist Gerhard Gschlöbl.

Varied experiences such as these are noticeable in Lillinger’s playing on the Ember CD. With the pieces evolving quickly and cerebrally, the drummer must be instantaneously prepared to patch together an accompaniment encompassing variegated patterns and resonations culled from bass drum bumps, snare drums rattles and rim shot strokes on one hand, as well as cymbal shrieks and clatters and vibraphone or marimba-like pings with the other.

Timbre exploration from the other musicians is in the forefront from all sides as well. For starters there are Leimgruber’s emotional bleats, multiphonic tongue fluttering, circular breathing and nearly soundless reed expansions. Schubert not only adds skittering fiddle spiccato, but also electronic shimmy and/or granular whooshes to every one of the five tracks. These meandering voltage clangs exist as blurry undercurrents to all the improvisations as well as providing commentary on Schwerdt’s playing. Additionally and on his own, Schwerdt’s distinctive playing ranges from calming, low-frequency patterning to kinetic and metronomic keyboard runs plus electrified harpsichord-like tone fanning and electric organ-like reverberations. Often hard objects are pressed against the piano’s inner strings producing stretches, stops and slides.

For instance, pulsating dual keyboard chording characterizes “Etherlorbien”. Yet these tones appear at the same time as the internal strings clatter percussively. Those unexpected rebounds are the result of hard balls being mashed against or soft mallets striking the wound strings. Simultaneously Lillinger contributes distanced drum beats and cymbal shakes, while Leimgruber’s narrowed trills make up a broken-octave interface that may include additional abrasive scrapes along the outside of his horn. When the piano line downshift to mock-serious processional chording, cymbal squeezes signal the tune’s finale.

Elsewhere, contrapuntal timbral slurs and splatters are inflated. But the ensemble cooperates so well that the result is as much a product of Schubert’s patched shimmies and Lillinger’s percussive prestidigitation as Leimgruber’s tongue-and-air strategies. The pianist fans his keys and plucks internal strings, the drummer exposes ratamacues and rumbles and the saxophonist’s parts range from strident vibrations and peeping split tones to double-tongued polyphony. During the course of “Begen Bginn Fllt” for instance, voltage pitch changes and granular whooshes from Schubert, high-frequency piano syncopation, the drummer’s nerve beats and rim shots, plus bird-twittering from the reedist produce an unmatched textural improvisation. By the final variant, inchoate nonsense syllables mouthed by one or more of the players are added to further thicken the improvisational interface.

Mouth and tongue vocal improvisations are present as well during the exposition for the 12-part suite that make up OM’s reunion concert and CD. Vying with Bronx cheers, onomatopoeia and whistles is rapid verbalization in English and German which eventually foreshadows similar noisy discourses from the quartet’s instruments. Harsh vamping squeaks characterize the saxophonist’s playing here; rattles, splats and shudders make up drummer and percussionist Fredy Studer’s contributions; bassist Bobby Burri outputs a speedy sul tasto bass line; and guitarist Christy Doran produces ringing, choked string licks.

Initially organized before the excesses of Jazz-Rock Fusion hardened into clichés, the OM quartet continues overall to emphasize good taste and compositional construction. Albeit this is done in an atmosphere where Studer, now part of Koch-Schütz-Studer’s Hard Core Chamber Music and Doran, whose most recent band with the percussionist involves Jimi Hendrix tunes, are allowed some pseudo rock-star posturing. At times the guitarist leans into the whammy bar to create distorted flanges and reverb, while the drummer specializes in tough frails, hard cymbal resonation and rolls, strokes and drags. Unexpectedly in one instance Leimgruber adds to the fray, using flutter-tonguing and flattement for tenor saxophone licks that could come from a 21st Century King Curtis.

Fortunately most of the time, Leimgruber continues to work out parts that are either flat-line legato or incorporate an atonal vocabulary of dog-whistle squeals and bear-like growls. Meanwhile, almost oblivious to the sonic shenanigans of the others, Burri maintain a steady rhythmic pace with his sluicing bass line. He carries this regularizing into his solo work, which granted, is spiced with a few sul ponticello runs.

Proving that he too isn’t limited by Fusion strictures, at one juncture Studer bounces out a Latinesque beat, which is swiftly met by expressive pitch variations, flutter tonguing and side-slipping reed bites from Leimgruber, which is a rugged contrast to his usual and more cerebral solo work. Further differentiating his solos from those of most reedists who play in this style however, Leimgruber adds elements of commitment and menace. Ferocious agitato bleats and sound barrier-breaking squeals posit that these forays into the so-called mainstream aren’t that different from his usual styling.

Multiphonic extensions from all concerned occur once the suite moves into its final phrases. Fittingly as well, Leimgruber’s harsh obbligatos are matched with spiky guitar reverb and amp distortion from Doran plus brutal stokes and backbeat pounding from Studer. With the reedist’s continuous peeps add to the shimmering lines created by the others, “Willisau” concludes with a satisfying polytonal thump.

Proving his versatility once again, Leimgruber fully expresses two sides of his personality as a saxophonist on these notable sessions. Hopefully they will lead those unexposed to his multi-talents – perhaps OM’s Fusion-oriented fans – to seek out other and different instances of Leimgruber’s extensive work.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Willisau: 1. Willisau Part I 2. Willisau Part II 3.Willisau Part III 4. Willisau Part IV 4 5. Willisau Part V 6. Willisau Part VI 7. Willisau Part VII 8. Willisau Part VIII 9. Willisau Part IX 10. Willisau Part X 11. Willisau Part XI 12. Willisau Part XII

Personnel: Willisau: Urs Leimgruber (soprano and tenor saxophones); Christy Doran (guitar and devices); Bobby Burri (bass and devices) and Fredy Studer (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Aurona: 1. Aruna Aurora 2. Flaudanne Cllltk 3. Oud Shhd Aiier 4. Begen Bginn Fllt 5. Etherlorbien

Personnel: Aurona: Urs Leimgruber (soprano and tenor saxophones); Oliver Schwerdt (piano, organ and percussion); Alexander Schubert (violin and electronics) and Christian Lillinger (drums and percussion)