McPhee/Bishop/Håker Flaten/Zerang

Ibsen’s Ghosts
NotTwo MW 876-2

Rich Halley Quartet

Requiem for a Pit Viper

Pine Eagle Records 003

Now that – neo-cons be damned – Free Improvisation has a half century of history behind it, canny or committed musicians can decide just how supposedly far out they want to be in their playing. Take the two sessions here. With identical instrumentation and recorded within a year of one another, the quartet on the first CD has decided to stick to compositions in the song form while the other opts for almost total abstractions. Neither provides the last word – or is it timbre– on what makes up a definite program of advanced music, but each has come up with a strategy for creating profound, un-clichéd sounds.

Made up of four West Coasters, Requiem for a Pit Viper showcases 10 compositions by Oregon-based tenor saxophonist Rich Halley, who is also a field biologist, and his West Coast confreres. Halley, his son drummer Carson Halley and trombonist Michael Vlatkovich all live in Portland, while bassist Clyde Reed commutes from Vancouver, B.C. The elder Halley and Vlatkovich in particular often play with other regional timbre-experimenters such as reedist Vinny Golia and cornetist Bobby Bradford. Ibsen’s Ghosts on the other hand was recorded in Osolo, the home of the famous Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. However bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten is the only one of the quartet members to be a native Norwegian, although he now resides in Texas. The other players are from the United States, Chicago, for trombonist Jeb Bishop and drummer Michael Zerang, both of whom have extensive playing experience with the likes of saxophonists Ken Vandermark and Peter Brötzmann, or in the case of tenor saxophonist Joe McPhee, upstate New York. McPhee has been involved with so-called avant-garde since the mid-1960s and is the moving force behind the five, artfully balanced unfettered improvisations here.

Without touching on the song form, the four still manage to maintain a contrapuntal; balance in their playing, even though it soon becomes obvious that nearly every timbre and tone from each of the four instruments is constantly in motion. Whether the horn output is made up of slightly pulsed nearly dormant pure air currents or extended currents of fortissimo squeals and plunger vibrations, the complete interaction never stops chromatically. Håker Flaten’s slaps, pumps, walks and occasional string scrubs contribute to this linear definition, although his work is usually more felt than heard. Meanwhile the variety of polyrhythms that arise from his Zerang’s drum set take up the slack. A low-pitched tongue flutter from Bishop is accompanied by focused cymbal and drum rubs and rolls, for instance; while glottal pressure and stuttering bites from McPhee bring out sympathetic percussion cross pulsing.

Similarly the trombonist and saxophonist take turns expressing themselves upfront or creating supportive tonal accompaniment. Should the saxist tongue-out a harsh staccato line, for instance, then the trombonist counters with a series of rubato snorts and trills. If McPhee’s conclusion to “Improvisation #4” is an approximation of bugle calls; Bishop’s resort is a variant on a primitive field holler.

The four build to the climatic “Improvisation #5”, where as McPhee’s vocalized saxophone lines accelerate to spetrofluctuation and reed-biting whines, Zerang appears to be hitting everything available from rattles to cowbells, and Håker Flaten’s percussive slaps reverberate from loosened strings. Descriptively throughout, Bishop’s grace notes are stretched to such an extent that they seem as much parodies as copies of McPhee’s lines. Finally the horns’ harmonic investigation stretches to parallel improving culminating in dual tremolo tones and tongue pops. Overall it appears that Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” was more an inspiration than Ibsen’s.

On the other disc Vlatkovich is an expert in contrapuntal development using hand mutes and slide positions to move from near-tailgate plunger snorts to fleet, staccato vibrations. Halley though is more grounded. He can over-blow and flutter-tongue if he wishes, but his solo parameters appear to lie somewhere around the late Coltrane-experimental Rollins axis. You can hear this on those tunes which suggest a hot and sweaty timbral rush by all concerned with Reed’s slap bass and Carson Halley’s popping and rattling. The trombonist seems to fray the time sense and gutturally push the lines up and down as he solos, whereas the saxophonist evidentially prefers a moderato narrative.

This separation is apparent as early as the first and title track, where contrapuntal vamping of spits and smears from Vlatkovich and triple-tonguing from Halley develop in sequence, backed by thick New Orleans-like bass string slaps and hard drum ruffs. But before it flies out of control, the piece is completed with a recapped head. This head-solo-head formalism contrasts with the sensory slurs from the saxman and capillary blats from the trombonist on “Circumambulation”, which are as notable as their earlier lockstep improvising. But as they reach the home stretch of this tune that resembles JJ Johnsons “Mohawk”, a unison return to the head seems mandated.

“Wake Up Line” on the other hand burns with dual high-intensity improvising, as the trombonist’s carefully constructed smears lead to a moderato mid-section, lengthy enough so that the saxophonist can masticate and savor different reed timbres. Still its ending seems to depend on backing out of the tune while exposing theme fragments.

More ambitious is “Subterranean Strut”, with Carson Halley’s paradiddles and ratamacues reflecting Dixieland and Bop territory simultaneously as well as exposing a drum-top sand dance. Vlatkovich operates at full power, giving vent to plunger mute curlicues at the top, and, linked to some snarls from Halley, guffaws as he brings back the theme before the end. The stop-time unison which marks the finale sounds as if it snuck off a New York Art Quartet session and posits how much freer this quartet could have played.

Perhaps all-out experimentation practiced by McPhee and company on the other CD isn’t attractive to Halley and his associates. And after all, his is one solution to the question of playing Free Music. But with the wealth of talent and technique displayed by this West Coast band, maybe trading the clean air of the Pacific Northwest for the colder climate of Scandinavia, at least figuratively, would produce a less structured and more hard-hitting result.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Ibsen: 1. Improvisation #1 2. Improvisation #2 3. Improvisation #3 4. Improvisation #4 5. Improvisation #5

Personnel: Ibsen: Jeb Bishop (trombone); Joe McPhee (tenor saxophone); Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (bass) and Michael Zerang (drums)

Track Listing: Requiem: 1. Requiem For A Pit Viper 2. Snippet Stop Warp 3. View From The Underpass 4. Circumambulation 5. Purple and Gray 6. Maj 7. Wake Up Line 8. Squeaker 9. Subterranean Strut 10. Afternoon in June

Personnel: Requiem: Michael Vlatkovich (trombone, percussion and squeak toys); Rich Halley (tenor saxophone and percussion); Clyde Reed (bass) and Carson Halley (drums and percussion)