Nobu Stowe

Confusion Bleue
Soul Note/CamJazz 121 40700

Michael Jaeger Kerouac


Intakt CD 175

Finding a distinctive niche in improvised music can be a less-than-comfortable situation if you want to be neither a fusion-follower, nor a full-time mainstreamer, nor a committed atonalist. As these CDs demonstrate, that’s the particular challenge facing Baltimore-based pianist Nobu Stowe and Swiss saxophonist Michael Jaeger.

Japanese-born Stowe, who also has a PhD in psychology, follows the concept of total improvisation, which is unlike so-called Free Jazz, because a performance can include elements of structure, melody and – as he demonstrates on Confusion Bleue –a previously composed song. Having worked with stylists as different as clarinetist Perry Robinson to tabla player Badal Roy in the past, Stowe’s instrumentation on this CD also leans more towards the so-called Jazz tradition. His playing partners include bassist Ty Goodwin and percussionist Ray Sage. However besides acoustic piano, Stowe also plays electric piano, glockenspiel and bell, while Ross Bonadonna, the fourth participant, switches between alto saxophone and guitar.

Zürich-based Jaeger’s Outdoors doesn’t have any need for doublers. Besides a full rhythm section of pianist Vincent Membrez, bassist Luca Sisera and drummer Norbert Pfammatter, plus Jaeger’s own tenor sax, the band features guests, American alto saxophonist Greg Osby and well-traveled Swiss guitarist Philipp Schaufelberger. Despite Kerouac being a long-constituted combo, Jaeger’s presentation is traditionally oriented as well: eight mostly lengthy tunes.

Expanding on his theories of total improvisation, Stowe seems to want to create music that is simultaneously structured and non-structured. The CD includes a four-movement, three-interlude improvised suite, but with Miles Davis-Bill Evans’s “Blue in Green” shoehorned in the middle. A mite upsetting in its impressionistic formalism, that piece finds the band not really altering the voicing – although the pianist does add some exaggerated piano chording and rolling high frequency lines, plus Bonadonna reveals some spidery finger picking reminiscent of Jim Hall’s work.

Overall Bonadonna appears to define himself more as a guitarist than a saxophonist. And his fingers sound more confident than his lips. His reed solo on “Quartrième Movement” for instance, may include reed-biting multiphonics, but their presence signals super-speedy matches from staccato piano lines, smacking cymbal resonation and a walking bass line. Earlier his stuttering yakkity-sax reed runs evolve parallel to Stowe’s high-frequency chording that itself is extended with electronic oscillations and glockenspiel plinks.

During the suite’s earlier movements however, sequences and theme variations are defined by Bonadonna rotating his guitar playing among thick, fuzz-tone laden tones, singular flanges and trebly finger-picked interludes. Dynamic glissandi and metronomic clanking from Stowe, either acoustically or from the electric piano, encounter, accompany or subsume the guitarist’s output, combining with the fortissimo percussion explosions to preserve the tension-laden interface. Yet the pianist also ensures that the tracks move chromatically.

Having exposed his dalliance with romanticism, while seemingly searching the keyboard(s) for the perfect, if impossible, chord as early as the “Premier Movement”, Stowe’s ancillary and heavily syncopated key-fanning sometimes slows the exposition as well. This is in spite of Bonadonna’s guitar rubs and distortions, plus accelerating percussion vigor from Sage.

Eventually, while the tonal centre has been shifted by “Épilogue: Dans La Confusion Bleue”, the final track, this confusion has actually been refined with tremolo voicing that lead to vamping call-and-response between portamento piano runs and twittering saxophone licks. Soon bass and drum accompaniment fall into place as the pianist’s swinging line is outlined in front of oscillated quivers from the rhythm section.

Making allowances for visitors’ contributions makes Outdoors both simpler and more tradition-oriented than the other CD. If anything, the most outside of the tracks is the appropriately titled “Freei Fünf”, and is played only by the core quartet. Based on processional piano shuffles, layered metallic cymbal strokes, sul tasto bass slices and disconnected sax blows, the piece appears more static than staccato, with Membrez’s low-pitched, bass note syncopation stating the theme.

When only Schaufelberger’s strumming is added to the quartet, as on “Flexible”, the pianist’s scene-setting, low-frequency glissandi move into ballad mode when twinned with guitar textures. While slap bass lines and hit-and-miss paradiddles and ruffs from the drummer shimmer beneath them, contrapuntal guitar licks abet Jaeger’s chromatic narrative. Eventually the guitar and sax lines fuse with a sliding and slinky tonic intensity that is both tart and understated.

With solely Osby on board, a piece such as “Goldfaden” swells with upturned reed vibrations, even though each saxophonist follows his own path. Unison lines are infrequently heard, but that backwards-and-forwards riffing seems strictly inadvertent with no attempt for a Stitt-and-Ammons or even a Desmond-and-Getz-like concordance. While Jaeger concentrates on mid-range jelling, the alto saxophonist tries out flutter tonguing, split tones and widely spaced modal patterns. More lively are the sextet excursions, especially the defining title tune. On “Daha” for instance, Schaufelberger’s string-snapping licks make common cause with Pfammatter’s backbeat. Meanwhile the dual saxes bite off thick reed pressures backed by foot-pedal pressure and internal string-stopping from the pianist.

There’s more excitement still on “Outdoors” as two idiosyncratic saxophone tones intertwine and work their way in broken octave concordance down the scale. Before that Osby soars with staccato trills and twitters while Jaeger’s output is more linear. Finally Schaufelberger’s fanning frails give way to gentle finger picking and tender voicing from the pianist. For a finale, methodical bass thumps presage fanning vibrations from Osby and ultimate pops and rolls from the drummer.

Each of these bands follows different paths to create individualized music that adds atonal interludes to the leader’s compositions without rejecting melody. Good indications of future prominence, with plenty of moments of invention to savor in each CD, neither attains first rank.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Outdoors: 1. Tanz+ 2. Goldfaden* 3. Schwarzes Eis+ 4. Daha*+ 5. Flexible+ 6. Freei Fünf 7. Kluss*+ 8. Outdoors*+

Personnel: Outdoors: Greg Osby (alto saxophone)*; Michael Jaeger (tenor saxophone); Philipp Schaufelberger (guitar)+; Vincent Membrez (piano and prepared piano); Luca Sisera (bass) and Norbert Pfammatter (drums)

Track Listing; Confusion: 1. Introduction 2. Premier Movement 3. Intermède I 4. Deuxième Movement 5. Intermède II, 6. Blue in Green 7. Troisième Movement 8. Intermède III 9. Quartrième Movement 10. Épilogue: Dans La Confusion Bleue

Personnel: Confusion: Ross Bonadonna (guitar and acoustic guitar and alto saxophone); Nobu Stowe (piano and electric piano, glockenspiel and bell); Ty Goodwin (5-string bass) and Ray Sage (drums and percussion)