Max Nagl Ensemble

Live at Porgy & Bess Vienna
Rude Noises CD 020

Part of that unique European world view which doesn’t rank or discriminate among musical forms, Viennese saxophonist Max Nagl splits his time between playing improvised music and composing for theatre, dance and radio. Best-known outside of Austria for his Big Four band with French guitarist Noel Akchoté and Americans, trumpeter Steve Bernstein and bassist Brad Jones, Nagl’s discography actually encompasses dates ranging from large ensemble showcases to solo sessions.

Most distinctive in its admixture of so-called high and low music – quaint Germanic designations – this CD features 11 Nagl compositions performed on a live cub date by a nine-piece ensemble that’s evidentially as comfortable negotiating the changes associated with rock and so-called classical music as it is improvising and swinging. As an added bonus the CD is exceptionally well-recorded, with every instrument splendidly audible.

Bouncing through a variety of styles that takes in Basie-like riffs, quivering pseudo- classical romanticism, East European-styled dance melodies, brass band blasts the band comfortably negotiates every challenge from the composer. Part of its confidence may stem from the unvarying but un-hackneyed rock backbeat courtesy of drummer Herbert Pirker, keyboardist Clemens Wenger and drummer Raphael Preuschl. At the same time while Nagl’s arrangements are for the totality of the nonet, he leaves room for a variety of soloists who in their playing likewise reflect various musical strands.

On one hand, tunes such as “latten peeler” and “spielplatz” feature among other strategies, interludes which highlight the blustery gutbucket, echoing plunger and occasional muted tones of trombonist Phil Yaeger. In contrast the reeds are more likely to harmonize rather than solo, although “spielplatz” offers room for feathery clarinet trills from Clemens Salesny and Nagl’s slurry baritone sax work. Such is Nagl’s skill however, that the reedists’ jumping sequences which occur after a series of legato vibrations from Joanna Lewis and Anne Harvey-Nagl, is also one of the few when the horns solo.

At the same while there are junctures where only meticulous contrapuntal polyphony between fiddles and horns prevent the lines being buried in Schlager; the string section is on hand for more reasons than prettification. Notably on tunes such as “norden” and “abgeschobenes kinderlied”, the violins’ cross-pulsing intermezzos shift between discord and harmony. At the same time the overall tessitura remains on an even keel because of the inclusion of quivering reverb from Pamelia Kurstin’s theremin. It’s likely that much of what sounds like harmonized voices is in fact the output from Kurstin’s Russian pioneered electronic device, just as many of what appear to be guitar plinks are actually created by the keyboardist or the violinists’ pizzicato work.

Live at Porgy & Bess Vienna’s climax comes with the nearly 10-minute “ippen erger” as energetic drum beats, staccato and stopping strings, whinnying trombone lines, pressurized tenor saxophone puffs and electric piano comping are balanced, modulated and finally melded.

Distinctively creative, on the evidence here there appears to be no reason that Nagl’s music – like coffee and pastry – shouldn’t be another appreciated Viennese export to the wider world.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. rafzn stew 2. latten pieler 3. outaien 4. norden 5. ippen erger 6. abgeschobenes kinderlied 7. spielplatz 8. blowing bubbles 9. schlafende griechin 10. eine ansage 11. i mog my kua ned hiatn

Personnel: Phil Yaeger (trombone); Clemens Salesny (clarinet, alto and tenor saxophones); Max Nagl (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones); Joanna Lewis and Anne Harvey-Nagl (violins); Clemens Wenger (keyboards); Raphael Preuschl (bass); Herbert Pirker (drums) and Pamelia Kurstin (theremin)