André Goudbeek/Christine Wodrascka/Peter Jacquemyn/Lê Quan Ninh

Booklet notes for Free Elephant 070

Although AGiiiiR, the distinctive word that serves as both this CD’s title and the ensemble’s name may seem both unpronounceable and malevolent, creative etymology reveals how its origin appropriately explains how and why this collaboration among four European improvisers is so outstanding.

As veteran reedist André Goudbeek remarks: “AGiiiiR initially stood for the André Goudbeek kwartet (AG4), but I added the letter R to make it into a word”. “‘Agir’ is French for ‘to act’, while the “R” suggests ‘result’, ‘revelation’ ‘rebellion’ or ‘revolution’. Then the four ‘i’s describe four equal individuals, each of whom has his or her own strong and personal playing style.”

Certainly the kaleidoscope of sonic effects unleashed during this multi-part essay in instant composition is expressed both jointly and individually. Every sonic particle not only interlaces with the other musicians’ contributions, but is also fully audible on its own.

Listen, for instance, to the variations displayed on “Jawadde”, the almost 24-minute aural novella that concludes this disc. Tremolo and agitato, the piece encompasses Goudbeek’s bass clarinet expelling low-pitched trills that accelerate into multiphonics, tongue slaps and altissimo cries as simultaneously percussionist Lê Quan Ninh scrapes and slides sticks on top of his cymbals and drums, while pianist Christine Wodrascka fragments the tempo with sharp, galloping clips. Slightly askew, Peter Jacquemyn unhurriedly turns from resonating sul ponticello stops to hone in on a walking bass line. As his chiming movements gradually solidify into pedal point ostinato, Wodrascka slides bottleneck guitar-like tones across the piano’s internal string set and the percussionist strikes gong-like reverberations. Before the tune’s fulfilling finale, it’s apparent that the clarinetist’s expansive trills are the tune’s only concession to lyricism, while the others’ staccato contributions are fully percussive. An overwhelming exercise in quadruple counterpoint, the performance references both the skewed beat of Free Jazz and the understated autonomy of Free Music.

Why such simpatico interaction among the four? Although this configuration has existed since 2003, and each player is an accomplished solo recitalist, other factors are also at work. To parse Goudbeek’s statement, the “result” of these musical “acts” relates to the “revolution” in European improvised music in which all are involved.

Netherlands-born, but a longtime Belgium resident, Goudbeek, who plays alto saxophone as well as bass clarinet, refined his craft with associates as different as Willem Breurker’s theatrical Dutch Kollektief and such more cerebral stylists as Chinese guzheng player Xu Fengxia and Portuguese flutist Carlos Bechegas. Goudbeek, who can also manipulate the bandoneon, has had particular relationships with string players such as Xu, the late German bassist Peter Kowald and Jacquemyn.

A Belgian polymath who divides his time between working as a sculptor – altering wood with a chain saw – and playing bass, Jacquemyn has been active on the improv scene for many years, but makes few recordings. That’s another reason this one is so valuable. Over time his partners have ranged from Fred Van Hove, dean of Flemish free improvisers, who coincidentally also plays piano and accordion, to younger instrumentalists such as German violinist Gunda Gottschalk.

On the French side of the equation, pianist Wodrascka and percussionist Ninh are equally involved with the most modern manifestations of notated music. However that hasn’t prevented the pianist from bringing her awesome technique to improv in the company of, for example, Gottschalk and Spanish drummer Ramón López. A seminar on percussion prestidigitation on his own, Ninh, a member of the Hêlios Quartet, also partners numerous experimental improvisers including bassist Joëlle Léandre and saxophonist Michel Doneda.

Thus the “revelation” here is that the four have internalized so many Free Music techniques and strategies – some of which they individually pioneered themselves – that this bravura performance almost matter-of-factly propels their instruments and themselves to their limits – and beyond. For example on “Klabats” Wodrascka’s glissando fantasia is coupled with Goudbeek’s ghostly reed respiration on alto saxophone, Jacquemyn’s double and triple-stopping and Ninh’s putters and bangs. In contrast on “Waddisda” the bass clarinet’s convivial chalumeau timbres soon become irregularly-voiced excursions into shrill whinnies as they surmount the pianist’s flashing metronomic passages, the bassist’s sawing arco impetus plus the percussionist’s rim shots and battering on metallic surfaces.

Appropriately enough, Tony Cragg’s CD cover drawing is a pictorial representation of the rapport among the four. Portraying the musicians’ heads dissolving into one another, while separate faces are visible, this sketch illustrates this superlative performance’s unity and its singularity.

— Ken Waxman ( Toronto, May 2008