Norbert Stein

Silent Sitting Bulls
PATA Music 20 CD


Seek it not with your eyes

Red Toucan RT 9339

Recorded within eight months of one another, these CDs provide a revealing snapshot of the Köln-centred improvised music scene and coincidentally catch up with recent sounds created by two of the stalwarts of the recently dissolved James Choice Orchestra (JCO). Together for four years, the 20-piece plus JCO was a European aggregation which successfully mixed improvised and notated music performed by players whose primary allegiance was to Jazz, Rock, Improv or so-called Contemporary Classical sounds. Its four leaders/composers were saxophonists Frank Gratkowski, Matthias Schubert and Norbert Stein plus tubaist Carl Ludwig Hübsch.

On Seek it not with your eyes, tenor saxophonist Schubert, who is also one-third of Hübsch’s Longrun Development of the Universe band, is involved with a completely improvised session recorded live at Köln’s Loft. Featured are another ex-JCOer, Melvyn Poore, who plays tuba and euphonium; flutist Helen Bledsoe, a member of MusikFabrik, the city’s contemporary music ensemble; and two visitors: British drummer Roger Turner and Russian pianist Alexey Lapin. As point of comparison, Silent Sitting Bulls is a component of fellow tenor saxophonist Stein’s ongoing Pata Music projects that adheres strands of contemporary and World music to a Jazz and Improv base. Studio recorded, the eight pieces were all composed – and likely arranged – by the reedist, who was also a crucial member of the Kölner Saxophon Mafia. Other players are flutist Michael Heupel and Nicolao Valiensi on euphonium, who both had JCO connections, plus drummer Christoph Haberer whose background is mainstream Jazz as well as computer-aided percussion performances.

Electronics don’t figure into the music here, which under the firm direction of Stein appears mostly concerned with rhythmic interaction as well as the timbres created when brass and reed tones are initially allowed to soar multi-directionally and then simmer alongside percussion. With the emphasis on percussion and euphonium pedal point, at times the performances resemble those of American alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill, who has experimented with similarly constituted ensembles.

Throughout Stein exposes varied textures and moods with echoes of Andalusian music, bouncy dance-styled texts and the faint leavening of Arabic scales. The last appears when Heupel puts asides his more usual airy and lyrical tones to bray nasally. Fungible lines and multi-counterpoint among the horns is also common, along with irregular cymbal pops and drum drags and rebounds plus an overriding low-brass ostinato. Only Stein’s solos, with their worldly vibrating split tones, slice through the harmonies. In general, many of the tunes balance on techniques such as alp-horn-like reverberations from Valiensi or rubato brass asides; first unconnected and parallel and then blended with flute and saxophone lines; as well as cross-ticking percussion rolls and flams that seem almost ceremonial until a more swinging pulse is developed.

“Miao & Chiao” for instance, exhibits all of Pata’s attributes from multi-directional horn timbres to Afro-Cuban styled hollow pops from the percussionist. Again while Stein’s agitato reed-biting and Haberer’s cross-pulsed scattered strokes roughen the collective texture, before mass cacophony signals the finale, a simplified beat and moderato flute trills allow – as with most of the other numbers – a climatic recapping of the head.

Nothing as compositionally conventional arises on the other CD, whose five tracks were designed as improvisations pure and not-so-simple. Instances of catch-as-can extemporizing include the very circumstances. A saxophone-tuba piano gig was inflated to a quartet session since Turner was in town; and the flutist sat in unexpectedly during the second set.

By that time the quartet had already demarcated its parameters. St. Petersburg-based Lapin, who at home works with fellow Russian multi-reedist Yuriy Yaremchuk or tubaist Misha Kolovsky, was comfortable enough in this, his first-gig outside the federation, to create irregular circular harmonies and sympathetic dynamic vibrations. Fusing an original mixture of rumbling low frequency piano chords, scampering keyboard patterns plus stopped and strummed internal strings, he quickly makes common cause with the others.

Turner, who has worked with everyone from French turntablist Alexandre Bellenger to British sound-singer Phil Minton – plus seemingly half the Free Musicians in Europe – is similarly unperturbed. Knitting together rim shots, drags and ruffs with reverberating plunks, cymbal scratches and bull’s eye rim shots, he provides a context for Poore’s pedal-point yelps and snorts as well as Schubert’s squeaking split tones, flutter tonguing and staccatissimo slurs. By the completion of “Can’t Catch the Name” for instance, before the tune is squeezed to silence, it has been enlivened with constricted and slurry bird whistle-like bubbling from both the reed and brass players.

In truth, Bledsoe’s fine-boned flute pitches don’t make that much difference to the performance. On a showpiece such as “Little Ways to Perceive the Invisible” it’s Lapin’s stopped and flattened piano tones – plus some internal string plucks – and Schubert’s deliberately whiny diaphragm vibrations that define the narrative. Eventually though, Bledsoe’s birds-in-the-trees chirping and peeping add an elevated change of pitch that seem to encourage the pianist to unearth bass clef timbres by bowing and strumming the piano strings. Turner’s slaps, skips and shakes then join Poore’s disassociated wah wahs and harsh tenor saxophone flutter tonguing for an ending that is more summation than delayed climax.

Both CDs have much to offer. Those interested in more formal, tuneful and rhythmically oriented sounds will gravitate to Silent Sitting Bulls. Those whose preference is pure improv will find a lot of like with Seek it not with your eyes.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Seek: 1. Per aspera 2. Can’t Catch the Name 3.Blur/Fanfare for the Rational Man 4. Little Ways to Perceive the Invisible* 5. Animated Beings*

Personnel: Seek: Melvyn Poore (tuba and euphonium); Matthias Schubert (tenor saxophone); Helen Bledsoe (flute)*; Alexey Lapin (piano); and Roger Turner (drums)

Track Listing: Silent: 1. Silent Sitting Bulls 2. Nondual Action 3. Paradise Lost 4. This is You 4. Quantum Mechanics 5. Schleuderhonig (Strained Honey) 6. Miao & Chiao 7. Hapana Lakini

Personnel: Silent: Nicolao Valiensi (euphonium); Norbert Stein (tenor saxophone); Michael Heupel (flutes) and Christoph Haberer (drums and wave drum)