June 15, 2012
Umlaut Records umfr-002
Budapest Music Center Records BMC CD 191
Decoding Jazz’s history so that it’s relevant for contemporary musicians has become one of the concerns of this century. While it’s obvious that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it – in an inferior fashion – conversely those who know only history can’t contribute to the music’s evolution.
With the same quartet instrumentation, saxophonist Viktor Tóth’s combo and the Peeping Tom group have come up with CDs that attempt to fashion Bop-influenced sounds according to their own concepts. Both bands are Pan-European, which in itself says something about dealing with a music that was almost 100% American-dominated until the end of the 20th century. However each is recalculating the tradition according to its own ideas. Boperation takes 10 Bop and Hard Bop standards and subtly reconfigures them with post-modern interpretations. Popping Bopping is another matter. While the six tunes here are all originals by Budapest-based alto saxophonist Tóth, most of the time the combo voicing and arrangements sound almost identical to that of post-Bop alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s quartet with trumpeter Don Cherry circa 1960-1962.
There are judicious differences in emphasis as well as geography though. Besides Tóth – Hungary’s most promising young saxophonist who has worked with Americans bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake – the front-line is filled out by Belgian trumpeter Bart Maris, known for his membership in avant Jazz-Rock experimental outfits like the Flat Earth Society, and who often adds electronic effects to his horn. The Charlie Haden-like bass role is taken by Magyar Mátyás Szandai who has played with local heroes such as saxophonist Mihaly Dresch and American saxist Archie Shepp. Holding down the drum chair is Turkish percussionist Robert Mehmet Ikiz, who played in band with Cherry’s son David Ornette Cherry in the U.S., and among other combos is a member of Swedish trombonist Nils Landgren’s Funk Unit.
Peeping Tom’s bassist Joel Grip is Swedish. Founder of Umlaut Records, he works with different continental musicians in bands such as Je Suis and SNUS. Alto saxophonist Pierre-Antoine Badaroux is Paris-based as is drummer Antonin Gerbal and is in bands such as r.mutt and megaton. Meanwhile Trumpeter Axel Dörner is a Berliner and seems to be a part of half the avant bands in Europe, working with everyone from pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach to violinist Angharad Davies.
At its most insubstantial, Tóth band members sound as if they’re unearthing previous-unknown Coleman Quartet outtakes. Luckily this doesn’t happen too often; but it’s vaguely disturbing, with the results sounding like those tapes released years later of John Coltrane playing Coleman and Cherry lines with his regular rhythm section and Cherry himself. On these tracks whether the performance is leisurely or speedy Tóth’s sudden trilling upturns or buzzing snorts appear to clone Coleman’s style. Furthermore, during his solos on tracks such as “My Home” and “A Ballad for White Flowers” he interpolates references to other tunes before reaching the reed-biting recapping of the head. That reversion to old school song construction was a style from which Coleman was evolving. Furthermore there are also some points on Popping Bopping at which the horn lines are so clean and so harmonized that the results reference the original style of the 1960s and 1950s Bop charts on the other CD.
Far better are tracks such as “Hong Kong” and “A Ballad for White Flowers”. On the first, Maris’ electronic oscillations add multiple shudders to the trumpeter’s forward-motion extensions as Tóth’s echoing obbligato is shrill enough to encourage cross tones and reverberation flanges from the brass man. The latter is a non-sloppy ballad – if a ballad at all – that moves on from a flighty high-pitched head to atmospheric signal-processing from Maris. The repeated crackling then granulates expected brass tone so that the trumpeter’s shaking triplet notes multiple loudly. Articulating his response with soured multiphonics, Tóth leads Maris into a high-pitched call-and-response showdown. Meanwhile Szandai adds a walking ostinato and Ikiz clanks and clicks different parts of his kit – familiar stratagems throughout the disc. The only disappointment is when Tóth ends his showcase with a reed- biting riff that is not only out of place , but sounds more like a homage to 1950s Jackie McLean than the rest of this thoroughly contemporary tune.
Tunes by McLean, Herbie Nichols, George Wallington and other advanced Boppers and Hard Bopper are featured on Boperation, but never do the tone and timbres of Badaroux’s alto saxophone resemble those of his Bop forefathers. Dörner also lacks any electronic extension – he often uses it elsewhere – but at the same time his playing doesn’t reference rote Bop-isms. The band’s fundamental voicing also have Coleman-Cherry echoes. But they are used as contrast rather than comparison, since another anomaly of this CD is that it consists of compositions by pianists reinterpreted by a piano-less band. While this off-centre approach works most of the time, paradoxically it’s sometimes frustrated when the simple and familiar tropes of the material prelude post-modernist interpretation.
Demonstrative reconstruction occurs on tunes such as Wallington’s “Escalating”, Nichols’ “The Gig” and “House Party Starting” and a medley of Eddie Costa’s “Pile Driver” and Dodo Marmarosa’s “Dodo's Dance”. All of these lines were composed by pianists working on how to escape the Bop harmonic straightjacket without turning to what became Coleman’s radical solutions.
Case in point is “House Party Starting” which after a broken octave exposition becomes harsh and friction-ridden. While Grip spiccato slaps and bows thickly and Gerbal shifts ratamacues and rim shots, the trumpeter’s stratospheric peeps and the saxophonist’s pedal-point slurs open up to half-valve growls and snorting staccato runs respectively. This doesn’t preclude head recapitulation, but the repetition appears to be there not out of habit but for emphasis. Among pregnant pauses, single notes balance between the two horns as Dörner’s tremolo tones turn to squeals and Badaroux masticates irregular breath lengths. Percussion ruffs and woody bass stops maintain the interface.
Analogous bravado appears on the Costa/Marmarosa melody suture. Both more Bop-like than POMO contrapuntal, the compositions’ unexpected multiphonics mostly arrive from Badaroux’s glottal punctuation and intense reed splintering. Gerbal’s blunt drags and ruffs precede brassy juddering from Dörner as part of tune summation.
While other compositions don’t benefit s much from pointillist lengthening and muting, Pepping Tom’s avowed aim of refurbishing Bop lines with post-modern options is more satisfying than Tóth composing new melodies that closely resemble what has been played previously. While Boperation can be unreservedly praised, it appears as if the Hungarian saxman should turn his prodigious chops and talent for arrangement to material that is more challenging in performance as well as concept.
Track Listing: Popping: 1. Pocket-Ticket 2. My Home 3. -34°c Sunny/+29°c Humid 4. A Ballad for White Flowers 5. Hong Kong 6. Stars’ Stairs
Personnel: Popping: Bart Maris (trumpet and effects); Viktor Tóth (alto saxophone); Mátyás Szandai (bass) and Robert Mehmet Ikiz (drums)
Track Listing: Boperation: 1. Boperation 2. Cromagon Nights 3. Escalating 4. Fantasy In Blue 5. The Gig 6. House Party Starting 7. Mo is on 8. Pile Driver/Dodo's Dance 9. Snakes10. Up Jumped the Devil
Personnel: Boperation: Axel Dörner (trumpet); Pierre-Antoine Badaroux (alto saxophone); Joel Grip (bass) and Antonin Gerbal (drums)