Charlotte Hug & Frédéric Blondy

Emanem 5026

Ig Henneman Sextet

Live at the Ironworks Vancouver

Wig 21

By Ken Waxman

Q: What’s the difference between a dog and a viola? A: The dog knows when to stop scratching. Of all the stringed instruments extant, it’s the viola which gets the least respect, with this joke only one of hundreds about it.

Yet because of its unique intonation the viola has become a favored method of expression for inventive improvisers like the two on these discs. Certainly Zürich’s Charlotte Hug and Amsterdam’s Ig Henneman confirm the versatility of their chosen instrument.

Perfectly designed to confuse types whose allegiance is to contemporary so-called classical music are the selections on Bouquet by Hug and Paris-based pianist Frédéric Blondy. Both have enough academic expertise to work in the notated milieu, but the dozen tracks here are improvisations, off-handedly displaying exquisite technical smarts, while sympathetically cooperating to create sound pictures that are extravagant without being egocentric. Most tracks consist of inside and outside piano tropes that range from methodical to stratospheric, plus fiddle sweeps that encompass mangling, melding and mixing textures. The overlapping cadences create a genuinely moving program.

A track such as “Thalia remontant” for instance finds the pianist vibrating mini cymbals resting on the top of his instrument’s internal string set, complementing Hug’s low-pitched spiccato swipes. Moving away from steady rhythm, both apply more torque to their strings resulting in multiplied tremolo syncopation. In contrast, “Rosa moyesii” is completed with a (faux?) sexy sigh from Hug after the two have methodically exposed parallel tonal chords, with the violist’s instrument attaining cello-like resonance as she roughens her attack. Blondy is so skillful that on “Sombreuil” he creates a cavern-deep ostinato from pure pedal motion alone, and then uses broken-octave keyboard jumps to define a response to Hug’s melodic invention. Elsewhere embroidered textures oscillate so quickly and are so opaque that ascribing them to a particular instrument is nearly impossible.

The six Henneman compositions that make up Live at the Ironworks Vancouver include so-called classical references as well. Still, while the violist may include more melodic and metrical portions, discordant sounds aren’t rejected. Her international sextet includes bassist Wilbert de Joode and multi-reedist Ab Baars from the Netherlands; Berlin-based trumpeter Axel Dörner; and two Canadians: Montreal clarinetist Lori Freedman and Toronto pianist Marilyn Lerner.

Note the versatile turns on the final “A ‘n B”, with the exposition moving from straightforward swing, replete with graceful trumpet lines and contrapuntal cascades from Lerner, to tougher sequences when honking bass clarinet explosions from Freeman and angled riffs from the violist take over, only to combine with the others for a low-key ending. De Joode’s steady pumping personalizes the title of “Bold Swagger” as call-and-response patterns are created by string double-stopping plus vibrations from the horn section. Henneman’s gift for descriptive lines are on display with “Prelude for the Lady with the Hammer”, which could serve as a film noir theme. The circuitous melody underlines dramatic contrasts among the bassist’s stentorian slaps, the violist’s double-stopping bent notes, and some pseudo-romantic chording from Lerner, ending the piece with a restrained, lyrical respite. The group’s abstract turn arrives with the deceptively titled “Light Verse”. More like a dramatic epic, the juddering exposition include whinnying trumpet flutters, unaccompanied, altissimo reed squeals and jittery lines from Henneman. Luckily Lerner’s rolling bottom chords again hold things together.

These CDs confirms that the viola makes a perfect vehicle for advanced improvisation. More sessions like these, and eventually there may be a dearth of jokes like: Q: Why is a viola like a lawsuit? A: Everyone’s happy when the case is closed.

Tracks: Bouquet: La belle sultane; Oeillet parfait; Sombreuil; Cato’s Pink Cluster; Boule de neige; Rosa moyesii; Zéphirine; Minnehaha; Thalia remontant; Nova Zambla; Double Delight; Thor

Personnel: Bouquet: Charlotte Hug: viola and voice; Frédéric Blondy: piano

Tracks: Live: Tracks; Prelude for the Lady with the Hammer; Kindred Spirits; Bold Swagger; Light Verse; A ‘n B

Personnel: Live: Axel Dörner: trumpet; Ab Baars: tenor saxophone, clarinet, shakuhachi; Lori Freedman: bass clarinet, clarinet; Ig Henneman: viola; Marilyn Lerner: piano; Wilbert de Joode: bass

—For The New York City Jazz Record March 2013