Frank Gratkowski-Hamid Drake

Frank Gratkowski & Hamid Drake
Valid Records VR-1014



Leo Records CD LR 565

Ever-widening his circle of playing partners and the musical textures involved, German saxophonist and clarinetist Frank Gratkowski has the past decade established himself as a notable genre-jumper. Overall, he’s as apt to lend his talents to the pseudo-classical Zeitkratzer ensemble as he is playing Free Improv with trumpeter Herb Robertson, to take one partner, or dabbling in live electronics with the likes of keyboardist Chris Brown.

Exposing complementary but opposed sides of his playing, are these two discs. The atmospheric Deployment matches him with Russian-American Simon Nabatov, who uses a prepared piano and German laptopist Marcus Schmickler in a Köln session. Meanwhile the other CD preserves freeform improvisations captured in New Orleans three months previously in the company of Chicago drummer Hamid Drake.

Probably the most-recorded American percussionist in advanced improv, percussionist Drake has had one-on-one meetings with saxophonists as varied as Chicago’s Fred Anderson and Wuppertal’s Peter Brötzmann. On the other hand, while Schmickler is best-known as a member of the laptop ensemble Mimeo or for duo work in with analog synth player Thomas Lehn, some of the mercurial Nabatov’s ensembles have featured Gratkowski,

Although the trio CD purports to have eight tracks, the entire performance is more of a piece, notwithstanding the first four tracks which together make up the “Allocation” suite. Cohesive and connective, Schmickler’s triggered crackles and chirps are often repeated in such a way that they form both ostinatos and obtruding thematic material. On “Instance”, for instance, as the computer’s peeping sequences oscillate, the pianist alternates romantic chording and percussive clanking as the saxophonist reed bites and tongue stops, eventually arriving at split tone barnyard cackles and nasally blocked honks. Although it may be that some of the sounds may have been captured and played back in real time by Schmickler’s computer. The succeeding and concluding “Node” does more than concentrate on single vibrations, even though Nabatov’s strident, high-frequency syncopation is in constant collision with Gratkowski’s wide vibrato and aviary twitters. \to bypass this, triple counterpoint evolves, encompassing echoing keyboard picks and crashing chords, key percussion and flat-line air from the reedist plus splatters and drones from the computer. Eventually the three reach a crescendo on “Allocation 4”. As Schmickler’s machine emphasize signal delays and electric-shaver-like buzzing, Nabatov’s tinkling portamento runs and sympathetic internal string stopping together line up in contrapuntal collusion with Gratkowski’s thick bass clarinet puffs and percussive snorts.

If tongue gymnastics and key percussion are the order of the day in Köln, then Gratkowski has to call on even more spectacular reed stratagems when dealing with Drake. Going mano-a-mano in the purported cradle of Jazz, tentative heads quickly give way to backbeat-driven improvisations. Drake’s multi-faceted percussion command is such that he can create a groove without the resulting beats eschewing cerebral experimentation.

For instance on “Square Root of Distraction”, bass drum thumps, clanks and clips on higher-pitched drums and simple cymbal responses reverberate as Gratkowski on clarinet cross blows whispering trills. Soon the reedist is alternating among coloratura and chalumeau, a variety of tongue slaps plus sudden jagged leaps southward. All this is outlined in broken chord fashion alongside Drake’s rasping drum tops, bell-pinging and maracas-driven rhythms. Ultimately the two meld drum stick bounces and discordant peeps plus buzzes and dog-whistle squeals that dissolve following a conclusive press roll from the drummer.

Earlier and later interactions find Drake’s innate swing nudging Gratkowski away from distracted whimpers and trills and towards a northern German version of bar-walking R&B, complete with stuttering squeaks and vaulting cries. Once the contrapuntal groundwork is established the two continue in similar fashion to the concluding “Varm Somehow”. First narrowly vibrating a near-rococo clarinet fantasia, the reedist turns to super-fast spiccato tongue slaps as Drake moves among rim shots, clattering cymbals and drags. A concluding intermezzo finds Gratkowski back on alto for some strident flutter tonguing. Drake’s nerve beats and cross-sticking guide the piece to a conclusive diminuendo.

Whether live or in the studio, just as long as Gratkowski is matched with appropriate playing partner(s), his multi-faceted skills can be used to easily produce fine music.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Deployment: 1. Allocation 1 2. Allocation 2 3. Allocation 3 4. Allocation 4 5. Artifact 6. Cluster 7. Instance 8. Node

Personnel: Deployment: Frank Gratkowski (alto saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet); Simon Nabatov (piano) and Marcus Schmickler (computer)

Track Listing: Valid: 1. Brother G’s Walk 2. Square Root of Distraction 3. Well, It’s Complicated 4. Varm Somehow

Personnel: Valid: Frank Gratkowski (alto saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet) and Hamid Drake (drums and percussion)