Steve Lacy

November
Intakt CD 171

Urs Leimgruber

Chicago Solo

Leo Records CD LR 570

Evan Parker

Whitstable Solo

psi 10.01

At this late date there’s nothing particularly startling about solo saxophone sessions. What is remarkable about the reed essays here is how differently master improvisers approach the challenge.

American Steve Lacy (1934-2004), who arguably perfected the concept in the early 1970s, was wedded to the song form, as he demonstrates on November, one of his final solo recording. Briton Evan Parker, 65, who shortly after Lacy’s experiments brought the saxophone further into the realm of abstractions, multiphonics and tonal coloration, optimizes the spatial and resonate qualities of an older church on Whitstable Solo. Meanwhile Swiss Urs Leimgruber, 58, who studied with Lacy and has recorded with Parker, has likewise evolved his own variation on this reed investigation; more abstract than Lacy’s design, but less concerned with extended circular breathing than Parker’s initiative.

If there’s one track more poignant than the rest on Lacy’s CD, then it’s “Tina’s Tune”. Composed for a fellow musician who died of cancer, it was frequently performed by Lacy during his final year as he too succumbed to the disease. Besides the mid-range accelerations and pressurized licks from his horn, his defiant recitation of the phrase, “If I must die, let it be autumn when the dew is dry” confirms that the master musician had resolved to operate at the top of his form until the end.

And he did, as further pieces like “The Rent” and “Moms” demonstrate. The former, with its buffo, off-kilter swing, sounds like a composition of Thelonious Monk, one of the saxophonist’s major influences, and is played with a broken-octave forward motion in multiple theme variations. The latter tune’s theme variations are feathery and moderato on the other hand, mixing upwards split tones and downwards slurs and achieving a bugle-call-like tattoo at the end.

Serious about his art, Lacy also never abandoned the idea that improvisation could also be entertaining. “The Hoot”, a supple salute to tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, for instance, includes a freylach-like riff plus lyrical reprises; while “The Door” along with bell-muting and the intervallic long tones he plays, finds the saxophonist knocking twice – at the tune’s exposition and its finale – on the wood of a nearby piano.

His justifiably famous fowl salute, here called “The New Duck” encompasses subterranean growls dragged from the horn’s body tube and rappelling and rasping split tones. At the same time Lacy produces reed quacks here and ensures that the ending resembles “East St. Louis Toddle-O”, an early composition by his other acknowledged influence, Duke Ellington.

There are those who may figure that quantum physics or aleatory asides may have more to do with Parker’s saxophone strategies than Monk or Ellington. But the British reedist has never negated his ties to Jazz and certainly played and plays with Energy Music enthusiasm in orchestral projects like the Brotherhood of Breath and Globe Unity. However over the years Parker has never stopped innovating. Committed to absolute music, he’s always trying out new configurations and facing new challenges. He does so here when he determines how the architectural qualities of a large church affect his mercurial style.

The most obvious consequence is the spatial set up, which creates a multiplicity of echoes and reverberations when he unleashes the circular-breathed reed polyphony for which he’s best known. As the bravura measures of pressurized chirps, broken octave microtones and reflected timbres enter the sanctified space, repercussions multiply. Ricocheting back at and inside the saxophone bell, an aural picture of a regiment of hard-blowing Parkers emerges, with each arpeggio or glissandi contributing to the whole, even while forging an individual path.

Close listening reveals that creating never-ending vibratos and trills isn’t Parker’s only game plan. On “Whitstable Solo 3”, for instance, some of the variations moderate from andante to allegro without altering the grain and false register cries are replaced by moderated, lyrical, almost rococo passages. Surprisingly, passages in “Whitstable Solo 5” sound almost mainstream before they build up to double and triple flutter-tonguing. However the ultimate chorus is altogether reflective, following a pause for dramatic and melodic effect.

Interestingly enough, the most characteristic Parker intonation appears on the final extended track, which was actually recorded before the others. Stretching past false registers, the saxophonist reveals swelling abstract microtones that appear to pulse amoeba-like while becoming gradually more strident and inchoate. Creating an acoustic version of signal-processed delay with extensive lip, tongue and breath work, the textures continue undulating and spinning, revealing otherwise masked ghost notes and partials. The same legion of saxophonist exerts itself by the finale which eventually diminishes with an extended fluttery trill.

Trills, shrills, whistles and whoops are also sounded by Leimgruber in a Chicago studio during the course of two maximized improvisation and a less than 4½-minute coda that make up Chicago Solo. From the beginning, there’s an inexorable feeling of forward motion as cursive concentrated trills, muted reed bites and discolored whistles format and reformat themselves into oozing squirts of intense textures and endlessly replicating split tones.

Exposing partials, nodes and reed coloration, the range depicted has more to do with distinctive saxophone properties than melodic niceties. While the alternations are among resonating, back-of-throat growls, flute-pitched hisses and strident squeaks, that often, like Parker, suggest multiple saxophonists improvising, the tonal centre holds. It may appear that the reed man is playing sonic hide-and-seek with saxophone timbres, yet by the end not only does the atomized interface begin to concentrate, but Leimgruber also introduce a fresh variant as mouse-like peeps seem to ricochet off the sides of the saxophone to re-enter the bell.

Overall the second variation is more aggressive, with tongue slaps sporadically trading places with squeaking pressures and altissimo cries punctuating the narrative. Following a chromatic exposition where these techniques enliven the line like the sighting of small hills on a flat prairie landscape, Leimgruber makes room for a concentrated interlude of quivering body tube rumbles, finger-tip key rattling and percussive tongue slaps. Disassembling his instrument to sound its different parts, the saxophonist eventually concentrates on forcing pressurized air through the horn’s body tube so that it reflects the metal finish as well as the horn’s insides. Nearly soundless puffs mark the diminuendo ending.

Experimentation mixed with expertise is what you hear on these CDs. Each of these extended essays in improvisation is valuable in its own right.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Chicago: 1. Chicago Solo One 2. Chicago Solo Two 3. Chicago Solo Three

Personnel: Chicago: Urs Leimgruber (soprano saxophone)

Track Listing: Whitstable: 1. Whitstable Solo 1 2. Whitstable Solo 2 3. Whitstable Solo 3 4. Whitstable Solo 4 5. Whitstable Solo 5 6. Whitstable Solo 6 7. Whitstable Solo 7 8. Whitstable Solo a-w

Personnel: Whitstable: Evan Parker (soprano saxophone)

Track Listing: November: 1. The Crust 2. Moms 3. Tina’s Tune 4. The Door 5. Blues for Aida 6. The Hoot 7. The New Duck 8. The Rent 9. The Whammies 10. Reflections

Personnel: November: Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone)