Max Nagl

Big Four/Sortileges
Rude Noises 017 CD

Nagl/Wenger/Pirker

Boulazac

Rude Noises 016 CD

One of those Viennese musical polymaths who seem to exist in profusion inside the ring roads of the ancient capital of the Astro-Hungarian Empire, saxophonist Max Nagl is best-known abroad for the avant-Swing Big Four combo completed by French guitarist Noël Akchoté, and Americans, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and bassist Brad Jones.

But, as these CDs demonstrate, Nagl – like other advanced musicians from the Austrian capital such as trumpeters Franz Hautzinger and Franz Koglmann plus keyboardist Hannes Löschel – isn’t satisfied with one distinct style. His preference has been to investigate theatre and film scoring, folklore and electronica as well as Jazz improv. Plus he manages to work all these genres into unique collages. While there are only two CDs here for instance, three different formations are involved, the Big Four and solo and trio efforts, which are as quirky as the quartet is faux-mainstream.

To get the most accurate idea of how Nagl operates compare the versions of “Jalousie” and “Einzelfahrt” as played live in a Vienna club by the Big Four with the same material performed on Boulazac by Nagl plus keyboardist Clemens Wenger and drummer Herbert Pirker. The rest of the Big Four disc – rather like side two of an LP – consists of seven solo japes by Nagl on soprano and baritone saxophones, melodica, toys, guitar, sampler, autoharp, percussion, bass and glockenspiel.

With Akchoté/Bernstein/Jones, “Jalousie” is taken as a cool and romantic mid-(20th) century Swing tune with the lyrical trumpet lines and spidery guitar licks evolving in lockstep and superseded by elaborate saxophone double-tonguing coupled with strong bass string strokes. More cinematic, Nagel/Wenger/Pirker’s “Jalousie” is built on understated drum cracks, wobbling keyboard runs and what could be the sound of subway train whistles and cuckoo clocks. Understated but busy, Pirker’s accompaniment of cymbal and chain rattles plus swelling, cross-pulsing organ polytones from Wenger create a supper club-vibe behind Nagl’s mellow, POMO sax elaborations, which only sonically peek from behind the progressively fortissimo timbres of the other two.

“Einzelfahrt” is reconfigured in different ways as well. In the trio version, ding-dong cocktail drum patterns mix with a ratcheting clave rhythm to move the Germanic tune south of the American border. As Pirker creates abrasive drum-sides friction and Wenger’s comping includes double counterpoint, Nagl’s tone is more Fausto Papetti bachelor pad than Modern Jazz-like, as the widely vibrated narrative inflates from adagio to andante. The entire tune attains secret swinger nirvana by the time the head is recapped. In contrast, the Big Four’s version is sufficiently mellow, as well as alive with uneven call-and-response among the instruments. This includes Country & Western-style twanging from Akchoté, flutter-tonguing from Nagl and a low-key ending that unites everyone’s parts satisfactorily.

As for the other Big Four tunes. Unthreatening and foot-tapping – at least on the surface – the tremolo lines which divide into flutter tonguing and connective licks evolve with such a sheen of professionalism that they could metaphorically have been played 70 years ago by a quartet of trumpeter Bunny Berigan, guitarist Carl Kress, saxophonist Benny Carter and John Kirby on the double bass.

When it comes to the trio, though, musical mischief-making rather than homage seems to be on their collective minds. “It Started with a Drip” for instance, is the most deconstructed performance. Mating railway-crossing percussion plinks and Klezmer-styled clarinet glissandi plus swelling keyboard riffs, the adagio beat unexpectedly switches to waltz time following the clang of a single cymbal. By the finale the melancholy Eastern European-style trills have been invested with glossy, broken-octave unison.

Other tracks range all over the musical map. There are those with Sandy Nelson-styled Rock’n’Roll drum beats and honking King Curtis-styled sax riffs; others which churn and blend irregular cymbal batting and vibrating keyboard distortions that could easily come from a “Telstar”-era electric guitar; and a third which limns a theme that may have fitted the background theme of a slick early-1960s Private Eye drama. Even the title tune, which climaxes with two reprises of the head, includes in its exposition snake-charmer tongue flutters from Nagl, rolls, pops, paradiddles and toy shakes from the drummer and sneaky, slithery keyboard lines that turn frenetic and kinetic.

Surrounded by a toy box full of noise-makers, Nagl’s musical strategies are just as captivating on his seven solo tracks. Someone who during the course of his career has worked with stylists as diverse as Marina Rosenfeld on turntables and electronics, violinist Joanna Lewis and accordionist Otto Lechner – not to mention visual artists – he’s evidently committed to introducing textures he found in others’ instruments into his own solo work. To this end pre-recorded and altered samples and processing are used sparingly but effectively.

“Wer Klopfet an” for example mixes a spare, pastoral, baritone saxophone line with autoharp strums, augmenting metallic oomph-pah-pah blasts and cricket chirps into a contrapuntal mélange that defines itself as much through selected samples as strums and clanks. “Verzette Fliege” on the other hand glues signal-processed whizzes, exploding buzzes and glockenspiel resonation with super sweet saxophone vibrations. With percussion whacks and accordion-like pumps added, the track is finally defined by the captured chirps of real fowl.

Then there’s “Le Klong II” whose stop-and-start oscillated scrubs meld with high-pitched, syrupy saxophone trills as well as simple accordion-like pumps. It’s as if pop/R&B reedist Dave Sanborn, ready for a bit of shoe-platten, had wandered into a scene depicting the destruction of the mammoth factory in the film Metropolis. Finally the counterpoint gives way to a strain that sounds very much like “Taps”.

Solo, in quartet or trio, from the evidence of these CDs, Nagl’s composing and performing powers are equally fascinating, no matter the line-up or circumstances.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Boulazac: 1. Boongalow 2. Roller3. Filter 4. Jalousie 5. Glanda Jumper 6. Magpie 7. Blues in Erdberg 8. Bagger 9. Boulazac 10. Bräuwiese* 11. Einzelfahrt 12. BpS

Personnel: Boulazac: Max Nagl (alto saxophone, clarinet, sampler, melodica, toy guitar, steel drums and banjo); Clemens Wenger (keyboards, toy piano*) and Herbert Pirker (drums)

Track Listing: Big: 1.Sherriff 2. Einzelfahrt 3. Durst 4. Jalousie 5. Fatty 6. Verzette Fliege 7. It Started with a Drip 8. Magic Book 9. Perce Oreilles II 10. Le Klong II 11. Wer Klopfet an? 12. Altes Uhrwerk

Personnel: Big: Tracks 1-5: Steven Bernstein (trumpet); Max Nagl (alto saxophone); Nöel Akchoté (guitar) and Bradley Jones (bass) Tracks 6-12: Max Nagl (soprano and baritone saxophones, melodica, toys, guitar, sampler, autoharp, percussion, bass and glockenspiel)