February 15, 2012
JDF Music JDF 7
Tá lam 11
Jazz Werkstatt JW 105
Putting together a tribute album to any major improviser is pointless unless the appreciator brings something new to the honoree’s music. That’s the particular appeal of these sessions. Joel Futterman’s solo piano salute to multi-reedman Eric Dolphy forces you to hear some of the reedist’s best-known compositions with fresh ears. Similar creativity is exhibited by Tá lam’s leader, bass clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann, with his arrangements of nine of bassist Charles Mingus’ tunes. By reconfiguring the compositions for an ensemble Mingus never imagined – 10-reeds and one accordion, and pointedly not including a bass player – Ullman too gives these familiar pieces new sonic life.
Swiss accordionist Hans Hassler’s quivering textures alongside the accumulated timbres from these German reed specialists is appropriately unique as well. Not only do the squeeze-box fills provide the continuum by taking the role of the otherwise absent rhythm section; but its reedy pitches also emphasize the link between this hand-pumped instrument and the other reeds.
Ullmann, whose regular playing associates include Americans such as bassist Joe Fonda and trombonist Steve Swell has put together a first-class ensemble with Tá lam. Most of its members also have their own group; and many have put in time with other innovative band leaders like pianist Ulrich Gumpert. Two, clarinetist Michael Thieke and clarinetist/ alto saxophonist Benjamin Weidekamp, provide arrangements as well.
Because of the instrumental make-up there’s more layering of vibrated sheets of sound than Mingus used. Furthermore, with many of the charts based on parallel and echoing lines from the harmonized horns, there’s a lyrical Europeanized – and certainly not African-American blend – on many of these tracks. For instance “Jelly Roll” features accordion shivers and stacked reed parts contrapuntally intersecting. When the quasi-Dixieland melody does kick in, it’s advanced with pedal-point snorts from the lowest register of Daniel Erdmann’s and Vladimir Karparov’s tenor saxophones, with one of the three clarinetists mixing tongue slaps and harsh glissandi with Hassler’s contrapuntal air pumping. When the theme is recapped by the unison reeds, abrasive shrilling from one clarinetist ensures the melody doesn’t become too unchallenging.
Bagpipe-like trilling from Hassler also helps move Tá lam’s version of “Fables of Faubus” from Arkansas to Europe. Layering different polyrhythms from menacing low-pitched saxophones alongside corrosive chromatic lines makes the tune’s satiric point by inference, rather than trumpeting the obvious. After all, bigotry knows no boundaries and its 21st Century European appearance is clocked in different strategies and accents. As the malleable treatment is stretched without breaking, glossolalia and reed bites replace rote recapitulation. Rippling irregular cries from the highest-pitched reeds – clarinets and soprano saxophones – eventually reveal the familiar melody conveyed with a combination of glissandi and irregular split tones.
Although nearly every one of the ensemble’s members has proven himself as a high-class saxophone soloist elsewhere, the solos are unselfconsciously brief. This is another manner in which Mingus differs from neo-con recreations where reedists individually try to equal Booker Ervin’s, say, or John Handy’s original exciting lines. Instead harmonies and reed vibrations are centrestage, with the results more like the World Saxophone Quartet or ROVA writ large than anything else. Even Ullman doesn’t showcase himself.
Playing solo, there’s no way Futterman could have been similarly self-effacing on Remembering Dolphy. But as a pianist he avoids any obvious comparisons. Also, unlike Dolphy, whose death at 36 in 1964 meant that his conception was as a Freebopper at its most advanced, Futterman is a more experimental conceptualizer, associated with saxophonists such as Kidd Jordan, who take improvisation into more experimental realms. At the same time this CD isn’t out-and-out abstract. As a post-modernist, Futterman’s walking bass work is more reminiscent of Earl Hines or boogie-woogie stylists than anything post-1945. Therefore no matter how splintered and staccato his broken chording becomes during narrative variations, the steadily paced syncopation keeps grounded rhythm on show.
For instance “Miss Ann” almost gains a ragtime interface at the top, as Futterman skitters across the keys, creating a bouncing steeplechase of passing tones and chords. As his chord formation varies from paced and processional to kinetic syncopation, the theme formation stays mid-range throughout, dropping into the bass register at certain times for added stimulation. By the finale as he makes the piano keys seem as malleable as plasticine, Futterman appears to have two lines moving concurrently. One is super staccato and the other decorates the first with sudden feints, pumps and flicks. Used frequently throughout, this skill often suggests that he’s extemporizing an original, often tremolo melody to complement the Dolphy line on which he’s improvising. That is most obvious on “Potsa Lotsa”.
Futterman has other tricks up his sleeve – or more properly in his fingers – as well. “Les”, a lesser-known Dolphy line become bravura and funky, hinting at more conventional standards as he plays. Building on the theme and letting it flow, the keyboardist contrasts highly syncopated rubato choruses, low-frequency deep-in-the piano-innards rumbles and splintered strokes on the external keyboard. When it comes to pianist Mal Waldron’s “Fire Waltz”, famously played by Dolphy with its composer at the Five Spot, Futterman takes fewer liberties and refers more to the theme, as benefits a tune created by a pianist thoroughly grounded in Bop. Futterman’s descending metronomic cadences manage to capture Waldron’s roots as well as his subsequent experimentation. This is no duplicate treatment though; when recapping the head, Futterman turns it inside out as he celebrates it.
Influential Jazzmen from earlier times deserve to be honored. Both Ullman and Futerrman have shown how it can be done without insulting their memory with rote imitation.
Track Listing: Mingus: 1. Canon 2. Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting/Boogie Stop Shuffle 3. Fables of Faubus 4. Eclipse 5. Jelly Roll 6. Self-Portrait in Three Colors 7. Nostalgia in Times Square 8. Reincarnation of A Lovebird
Personnel: Mingus: Juergun Kupke (clarinet); Michael Thieke (clarinet and alto clarinet); Joachim Litty and Heiner Reinhart (bass clarinet); Gebhard Ullmann (bass clarinet and soprano saxophone); Hinrich Beermann (soprano saxophone); Volker Schlott (alto and soprano saxophone); Benjamin Weidekamp (alto saxophone and clarinet); Daniel Erdmann and Vladimir Karparov (tenor saxophone) and Hans Hassler (accordion)
Track Listing: Dolphy: 1. Potsa Lotsa 2. Les 3. Out to Dinner part one 4. In The Blues 5. Serene 6. Miss Ann 7. Fire Waltz 8. 17 West 9. Out to Dinner part two
Personnel: Dolphy: Joel Futterman (piano)