Christoph Irniger & Pilgrim

Mt. Tongariro
Between the lines BTLCHR 71228

Julian Siegel Quartet

Urban Theme Park

Basho Records SRCD 35-2

As improvised music extends and expands in the 21st Century, it’s not just definitions of the so-called avant garde which are changing. Being redefined as well is what constitutes what is purported to be mainstream Jazz. Unless one only follows the views of some so-called “Jazz” radio stations and so-called “Jazz” magazines which are caught in a rigid and codified vision of the music, the mainstream is a lot deeper and wider than the pre-1960s variant these self-appointed gatekeepers are peddling as the only definition of Jazz.

In reality mainstream Jazz now encompasses the modal experiments of the post-Boppers; a sense of limitless space and pacing introducing by the Scandinavians in the 1970s; usual instruments and instruments’ limits formerly the purview of Energy Music; and in moderation, more pronounced beats imported from early Jazz-Rock fusion.

Recorded in the tradition saxophone-piano-bass-drums formation by a British-based and a Swiss quartet, each of these lustrous discs reflect these changes in a different fashion. How you respond to them probably depends on how you define contemporary Jazz.

Should Hard Bop intensity mixed with chordal and textural analysis excite you, then you’ll be quite at home in Urban Theme Park. The nine-track CD is helmed by multi-reedist Julian Siegel, who besides a multitude of Jazz gigs has playing experience encompasses accompanying a clutch of vocalists, musicians from Ghana and Nigeria, performance artist/violinist Laurie Anderson and pianist/singer-songwriter Steve Nieve. The understated Mt. Tongariro on the other hand is under the direction of Zürich tenor saxophonist Christoph Irniger, who has workedf with groups such as therb Lucerne Jazz Orchestra and Cowboys from Hell.

There’s the same disparity among the sidemen. On Siegel’s disc, pianist Liam Noble has published four volumes of transcriptions of the Bill Evans Trio, yet has worked with improv drummer Tom Rainey as well as saxophonists such as Stan Sulzmann. Flashy Gene Calderazzo is an American drummer residing in the United Kingdom, who has backed figures as disparate as saxophonist Phil Woods, guitarist Wayne Krantz and pianist Hans Koller. Meanwhile bassist Oli Hayhurst is a stand up accompanist. Irniger’s associates include bassist Christian Weber has worked with everyone from guitarist Flo Stoffner to German pianist/composer Dietrich Eichmann, while drummer Michael Stulz and pianist Vera Kappeler work with many Swiss groups.

Throughout his CD’s nine selections Siegel proves that he’s equally proficient on all of his horns, His lighter tone on soprano and tenor saxophones doesn’t preclude him from outputting wide glissandi, flutter tonguing and at points the ability to suggest diverse tones to in effect duet with himself however. Mixing incisiveness with lyricism in his soprano playing, he’s able to motivate a straight-ahead swinger such as “Keys to the City”, brushing up against Calderazzo’s stop-time bounces and ruffs, Hayhurst’s chiming runs and Noble’s arpeggio filled slurred lines. Furthermore when Siegel brings out his bass clarinet as on “Interlude”, the mid-range lip vibrations provide the perfect introduction to the musical novella that follows as he downshifts his moderated double-tonguing to harmonize with the other players. Subsequently, as the rhythm section swings independently to a low-key finale, the reedist continues to advance the theme microcosmically and chromatically.

Not averse to utilizing walking bass lines, round robin theme variations among the band members, keyboard comping and drum breaks, which in some cases get a mite imperious, these performance of Siegel’s compositions don’t shy away from distinctive touches. For example “Drone Job” features a wide-bore theme exposition from Siegel on top of Hayhurst’s unyielding string drone, with Noble responding with synthesized keyboard echoes and speedy glissandi leading to contrapuntal counterlines from slap bass and mallet smacks from Calderazzo.

An opposite tack is taken with the three-section “Game of Cards”, whose funk basis almost produces spontaneous finger-snapping. Press rolls from the drummer and ponderous bass pedal point underline the pianist holding onto the initial snaking theme as Siegel’s flutter-tongued soprano colors it, leading to higher-pitched and more staccato elaborations in the second theme-variant. The saxophone tone takes on a Scottish burr in the third variation that helps amplify background riff as the drummer hits hard and fast and Noble’s high-frequency, double-timed voicing cascade into a near-intermezzo.

Mt. Tongariro, named for a volcanic mountain in New Zealand rather than Switzerland is as solemn as the other disc is swinging. That’s solemn, not lugubrious however, although inferences from Nordic momentum and Bill Evans Trio-like delicacy sometimes predominate.

Luckily Kappeler is also proficient on adding sprawling, appreciated tones from plucked and strummed internal piano strings while Irniger’s reed tone, while never as upfront as Siegel’s, staunchly avoids ECM-like waspishness. On a tune such as “Pathfinder” for instance, the tenor saxophonist’s mid-range, chromatic slurps are balanced with Latinesque rim shots from Stulz and tremolo vibrations from the pianist. At the same time while impressionistic story telling isn’t neglected in the six selections – the nubs of which were composed by Irniger – harsh, staccato and irregular vibrated textures are interjected in such a ways as to toughen the lines without upsetting the interface.

Perhaps reflecting his heritage, the sax man manages to suggest floating hunter’s horn echoes matched with slow-boiling piano cadenzas on “The New World”. Meanwhile altissimo flutter tonguing, warbles and slides, plus Kappeler’s kinetic piano-string stopping and exciting of the speaking length during “Chasing Dreams of Mt. Tongariro”, is more reminiscent of Sun Ra conceptions than any Jazz impressionism.

Two saxophonist-led European quartets suggest ways to add subtle modernism to mainstream improvising without junking Jazz history. Either can be investigated fruitfully.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Urban: 1. Six Four 2. One for J.T. 3. Heart Song 4. Keys to the City 5. Game of Cards 6. Lifeline 7. Interlude 8. Fantasy in D 9. Drone Job

Personnel: Urban: Julian Siegel (tenor and soprano saxophones and clarinet and bass clarinets); Liam Noble (piano and synthesizer); Oli Hayhurst (bass) and Gene Calderazzo (drums)

Track Listing: Mt.: 1. The New World 2. Pathfinder 3. Chasing Dreams of Mt. Tongariro 4. Dead Man 5. Mt. Tongariro 6. Moving Moment (for Kathrin)

Personnel: Mt.: Christoph Irniger (tenor saxophone); Vera Kappeler (piano); Christian Weber (bass) and Michael Stulz (drums)