Joe Morris/Agustí Fernández

Ambrosia
Riti CD11

Agustí Fernández & Joan Saura

Vents

psi 11.01

Evans/Fernández/Gustafsson

Kopros Lithos

Multikulti Project MP 1013

Augustí Fernández/Barry Guy/Ramón López

Morning Glory

Maya Records MCD 1001

By Ken Waxman

Over the past 15 years Catalan pianist Augustí Fernández has become the most celebrated pianist – if not complete improviser – from his part of the world. In many ways he’s the successor to pianist Tete Montoliu (1933-1997). But while Montoliu was a bopper, Fernández doesn’t limit himself to one style, as this quatrtet of memorable discs makes evident.

A frequent associate of experimental improvisers from Parker (William) to Parker (Evan), the pianist also has a neo-traditional side, reflected by Morning Glory. Recorded in Spain and New York, this two-CD set is a spiky take on the jazz piano trio, with Fernández’s partners British bassist Barry Guy and Spanish percussionist Ramón López. More atonal is Kopros Lithos, whose experimental textures arrive courtesy of the pianist, American trumpeter Peter Evans and the baritone saxophone and alto fluteophone of Swede Mats Gustafsson. As founders of the Improvisadors de Barcelona Orchestra, Fernández has often worked with live electronics and sampler player Joan Saura. Vents is a rare duo session from the two.

Created in studio over an eight month period, Vents’ tracks are so much a part of the electro-acoustic world that it’s difficult to remember that Fernández is playing acoustic piano. Then again the keyboardist is a master of the timbres that can be bowed, plucked and strummed from internal strings, usually prepared with vibrating objects, and his expressions mate perfectly with the austere flanges and oscillations shrilled, reverberated or crunched by Saura’s electric implements. Throughout the performances onomatopoeically reflect both meaning of vent: an expression of pent-up emotion and an opening for the escape of gas to release pressure.

Although reductionist and disconnected, most of the tracks are remarkable in the way that Fernández’s tough keyboard pressure and popping internal strings add a needed humanity to Saura’s radiator-like hisses, motor-driven grinding and crackling sound patches. This is easily demonstrated on a track such as “Llevant”, with its shifting tonal centres.

On the other hand, Ambrosia is not your parents’ guitar-piano duo. It put a post-modern cast on the proceedings as Fernández matches wits with guitarist Joe Morris. Morris, who now often works as a bassist, at times manages to translate the low timbre of the four-string to his six-string. That means that echoes of double bass accompaniment is present while the guitarist showcases spiky, single-string action. On a tune such as “Ambrosia 1”, the two languidly complement one another even while distending the theme. Morris’ frails speed up to the point that they’re eventually bouncing from strings below the bridge and on the neck, while Fernández concentrated in swirling and contrasting dynamics à la Cecil Taylor.

Even though legato passages and harmonies are at a minimum, some of the tracks on this magisterial six-part suite don’t turn away from unintentional delicacy. “Ambrosia 3”, for instance, is built on gentle single-note clicking from the pianist, amplified by palm-pumps which create vibes-like tones from the guitarist. However, if some tracks come across as a discordant aural version of greyhound racing with Fernández chord-spraying as quickly as Morris string snaps, the two are able to intermingle such tactics as soundboard echoes from the pianist and slurred fingering from the guitarist to promote sophisticated parallel improvising.

Morning Glory is also wedded to acoustic expression. The CD’s 19 tracks, especially those recorded live at Jazz Standard, could be an updating of Bill Evans’ celebrated Village Vanguard sets. With his perfectly formed notes, Fernández makes his composition “David M” a piano showcase with deep ruminations in the instrument’s middle register. A swinging, near lullaby, it’s also notable for Guy’s slippery modulations that are unabashedly tonic. Barely there, with understated bounces on this track, López further exhibits his sensitive touch throughout. He confirms it on a tune such as “Don Miquel”, where his nervy tom-tom pulse and cymbal scrapes unite with the pianist’s methodical keyboard strumming to gorgeously frame Guy’s solo. Almost so-called classical in execution, the bassist manages to create two different sounds with his bow, before exciting with hand-pinched lines.

There’s a faint Latin tinge to “Don Miquel”, carried over from Fernández’s “Aurora” on the other CD. An Iberian take on Hispanic rhythms, the tremolo patterns reveal many notes in rapid succession, yet the line stretches enough to keep the impressionistic theme chromatic. Guy’s retort features scrapped and stropped strings, while the percussion undertow is mostly rim shots and what sounds like the hand-crushing of crisp paper.

Other pieces expose more abrasive back-and-forth group impov, often at lightning-quick speeds. At points Fernández’s choruses echo from the piano’s lower quadrant or he jabs at the keys while Guy bows. A perfect example of this strategy occurs on “Pepetuum Mobile” as the pianist’s chording evolves in double counterpoint with either Guy’s dobro-like twangs or bow taps against his instrument’s wood. As in most other instances, the drummer’s accompaniment is understated.

There’s no percussion on Kopros Lithos, but that doesn’t stop it from being the most stentorian of the three sets. Between Evans’ flighty squeals and wide-bore grace notes plus Gustafsson’s verbal shouts, tongue slaps and growls from his baritone sax, there’s enough discordance to go around. On a track such as “You displaced me by your singing”, Fernández adds to the general din by continuously rubbing and plucking his piano strings as well as clattering various objects placed upon them. At the same time it’s his methodical key-stopping which guides the trumpeter’s tongue fluttering and the saxophonist’s metal-scrapping honks to a more melodic interface.

Perhaps those connective timbres from the keyboard also define the message behind another track title: “My fingers were glue”. Certainly Fernández’s pressure firmly shapes the parallel improvising from the horns. Here Evans buzzes and whinnies as if a metal sheet is pressed against his horn’s bell, while Gustafsson contributes high velocity snorts and brays.

Fernández’s pianistic control while improvising in a non-conventional manner is a tribute to his skill. It’s also another indication why any and all of these discs are satisfying listens.

Tracks: Tramuntana; Gregal; Garbí; Migjorn; Xaloc; Mestral; Ponent; Llevant

Personnel: Agustí Fernández: piano; Joan Saura: sampling keyboard and live electronics

Tracks: You displaced me by your singing; My ears were ringing!; My fingers were glue; As each note rang true

Personnel: Peter Evans: trumpet; Mats Gustafsson: baritone saxophone and alto fluteophone; Agustí Fernández: piano

Tracks: CD1: Morning Glory: La niña de la calle Ibiza; Morning Glory; Unfinished Letter; Zahorí; An Anonymous Soul; Perpetuum Mobile; Benito (Jordi Benito in absentia); The Magical Chorus; Glade; Mourning; A Sudden Appearance; Belvedere; CD2: Live in New York: Don Miquel; Odyssey; Can Ram; David M; Aurora; No ni Nó; Rounds

Personnel: Agustí Fernández: piano; Barry Guy: bass; Ramón López: drums and percussion

Tracks: Ambrosia 1; Ambrosia 2; Ambrosia3; Ambrosia 4; Ambrosia 5; Ambrosia 6

Personnel: Augusti Fernandez: piano; Joe Morris: guitar

—For New York City Jazz Record July 2011