Ardent Grass
Red Toucan RT 9340

By Ken Waxman

Possibly the key to this memorable exercise in chamber improv by German reedist Frank Gratkowski and Danish pianist Jacob Anderskov is the final track, which was actually the disc’s sound check. On it the two limber up by playing pastiches of jazz standards and neo bop.

That suggests that Gratkowski, usally known for spikier work with associates such as pianist Simon Nabatov or in the Bik Bent Braam band; and Anderskov, whose more usual playing partners are sound-extenders such as bassist Michael Formanek or reedist Chris Speed; set out to make a conventionally modern record. Judging by their experience and talent that they accomplished their goal is no surprise; that the jazz climate is often so conservative that many would consider this collection of originals far out, is shameful.

Gratkowski is at his most expressive playing clarinet on “Asteroids” and “Devotion”. The former is a measured showcase which blends delicate, contralto reed warbling with methodical and legato piano harmonies through the use of subtle layers of translucent sound coloring. Even darker and lower-pitched, the latter tune contrasts Anderskov’s tonic clusters and slippery note extensions with legato, though shrill, glissandi from the reedist, bonding the duet with chromatic key fills and romatic reed obbligatos.

Never to be confused with mood jazz however, the improvising on Ardent Grass includes strained glossolalia and pressurized reed bites from Gratkowski’s alto saxophone plus tremolo cadenzas and caustic metronomic chording from Anderskov. “Downstairs” is the paramount example of this, as the clarinetist’s rough chalumeau tones evolve into downward-sliding polyphonic harmonies ranged alongside the pianist’s staccato key-clipping and soundboard echoes.

This CD isn’t just notable for inspired playing, but also as a definition of how a modern mainstream disc should sound.

Tracks: Narrative; Diagnose; Ardent Grass; Asteroids; Rasa; Devotion; Downstairs; Sound Check

Personnel: Frank Gratkowski: alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Jacob Anderskov: piano

— For New York City Jazz Record March 2011