Roland Ramanan Tentet

London
Leo Records CD LR 556

Swiss Improvisers Orchestra

Zwitzerland

Creative Sources CS 157 CD

Although neither fish nor fowl – that is neither big-band nor small combo –important improvised music history has been made by ensembles larger than the standard quintet or sextet and much smaller than the accepted big band or symphony orchestra.

Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool nonet is an example of this as is Thelonious Monk’s Town Hall tentet. Count Basie’s Kansas City band was originally nine pieces, while more recent mid-sized band experimenters – including Evan Parker, Misha Mengelberg and Anthony Braxton – have welcomed the freedom associated with an ensemble that allows for additional tonal colors, but moves with flexibility.

British trumpeter Roland Ramanan’s tentet (RRT) and the nine-piece Swiss Improvisers Orchestra are variants of this formation. Their individual compositional and arrangement methods go a long way towards explaining why – and how – each ensemble is notable own its own. Both CD titles are near giveaways. London gathers some of the British capital’s best players in a program which relates most strongly to the solo individuality of Jazz, but mixed with un-hackneyed sensibility of Free Music. Twice as old as the RRT – 12 years to six – the Swiss Improvisers Orchestra (SIO) is also wedded to Free Music. But with a history of multi-media work with guest artists, it appears that the Basel-based band’s programs are more involved with procedural steps, group arrangements and strategic introduction of complementary musical genres. Both ensembles use conduction and re-organization of resources when performing. But avocation of cuts and chance elements seem to be the result of New music study for the SIO, while the RRT’s cues, heads and graphic scores arise from Jazz’s D-I-Y tradition.

During the course of London’s five tracks – all composed by Ramanan – the trumpeter shows that his strategies encompass more eddies than the sort of pure improv practiced by the mammoth London Improvisers Orchestra which he and the other players are also affiliated. That’s why the section work on “Turning the Heel” relates strongly to the sort of stacked-up brass vs. reed counterpoint Thad Jones for one often used in his arrangements. Not only does the piece swing in part as if it’s being played by the Basie band, but during an extended section in the middle and plus the penultimate variation, RTT enters Dixieland territory. Trombonist Robert Jarvis, clarinetist Alex Ward, bassist Dominic Lash and dual drummers Tony Marsh and Javier Carmona expose their links to Kidd Ory, Jimmy Noone, Pops Foster and Zutty Singleton respectively with tailgate slurs, contralto trilling, slap bass and rickety-tick splatter rolls and pops.

Other conductions expose more double-and-triple tonguing reed episodes; shaded saxophone coloring; strained trombone pumping; near-minimalist but powerful trumpet blats; cello and double bass slurred fingering and string pops; plus scraps on cymbals and drum tops. With many compositions performed in broken octaves, the RTT masses for searing tutti passages, then splinters back to individual expression(s). Melodic fragments also connect, but only after fortissimo expositions, on pieces such as “Ever Made Go Cold”. Soon after the horn parts splinter from block-like chromatic movements, passages of altissimo reed shrieks brush up against writhing brass shards and downshifting drum beats – with every sound audible.

Inter-cutting among different score fragments is also expressed by the SIO, but the pauses are protracted on this CD, revealing more of the compositional machinery. Leaving nothing to chance individual tracks are titled as if in a procedural manual, so the listener – or is it the players – can follow the action.

“Tales” for instance, moves through several sequences. Initially atonal and ghostly, with the theme filtered through strained cello vibrations, peeps, pokes and trills from what sounds like penny whistles and slide whistles, the exposition soon vanishes beneath slippery piano cadences, and is succeeded by a mid-range, flat-line extended chirps from the basset horn. Although the rhythm section and brass vibrate dramatically plus the drummer strokes strongly, the overall movement is more of a lurching waddle, then a thematic roll.

More satisfying and individualistic is “Powerloops and Ballad” and the extended and almost hyper-descriptively titled “Sax conduction and Free”. The former features whinny breaks first from a tenor saxophonist and then by the cellist and finally by a widely vibrating alto saxophone; faux bluesy piano chords; and slap-and-pick bass. Interspersed among them are massed tuttis played at breakneck speeds. As for the latter, it appears to be organized for a round-robin of showcased solos, fist by notated tenor saxophone, than by clarinet – plus piano and cello. Tenor saxophonist Carles Peris is backed by syncopated horn vamps and cymbal slaps, with a clarinet’s rushing trills matched by woodblock punctuation and a semi-martial beat, until the rhythm section lays out, allowing the horns to pinball, ricochet and squeak fortissimo. A sul ponticello cello shriek where the strings are stretched for massive abrasions, introduces alternating piano chord clusters, horn squeaks and drum rumbles. A tutti variation follows a section that slows down to waltz time and gentle flute puffs, culminating when the sounds vanish beneath diminishing flute breaths.

Enjoyable for what it is and a proof of the power of mid-sized band arrangements, the SIO still appears too shackled by its theoretical concepts. On the other hand RRT takes advantage of the small big band framework to satisfactorily add the impetus from self-directed soloists.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: London: 1. Turning the Heel 2. 3 Line 3. Ever Made Go Cold 4. Brass Trio 5. Another One.

Personnel: London: Roland Ramanan and Ian Smith (trumpets); Robert Jarvis (trombone); Alex Ward (clarinet); Simon Rose (alto saxophone); Ricardo Tejero (tenor saxophone); Marcio Mattos (cello) Dominic Lash (bass) and Tony Marsh and Javier Carmona (drums)

Track Listing: Zwitzerland: 1. Grooves and Cuts 2. Disturbed Tune 3. Sax conduction and Free 4. Marsala and Impro 5. Tales 6. Powerloops and Ballad 7. March Impro

Personnel: Zwitzerland: Marco von Orelli (trumpet); Ursula Maehr (recorder,); Valentin Vecellio (basset horn and bass clarinet); Francis Petter (alto saxophone, clarinet); Carles Peris (tenor saxophone, flute); Christoph Baumann (piano); Sabine von Werra (cello); Markus Fischer (bass) and Jacques Widmer (drums)