6ix

Almost Even Further
Leo Records CD LR 644

Urs Leimgruber/Roger Turner

The Pancake Tour

Relative Pitch RPR 1007

Maintaining an exceptional level of consistency playing improvised music demands empathic collaborators as well as chops and commitment. That’s why so many improvisers maintain long-standing relationships with a select group of fellow sound experimenters. Paradoxically, these same musicians often revel in the challenges of playing in new combinations.

Take Swiss soprano and tenor saxophonist Urs Leimgruber for instance. The Pancake Tour is a duo outing with an experienced associate: British drummer Roger Turner. Turner and Leimgruber are also present on Almost Even Further, except that on the latter disc the drummer and American cellist Okkyung Lee are new elements introduced to the 6ix group. They add their textures alongside those of other founding members, pianist Jacques Demierre and vocalist Dorothea Schurch from Switzerland and German synthesizer player Thomas Lehn, all of whom Leimgruber has worked with for at least the last decade.

To be honest it’s Turner, as the first percussionist to play with 6ix, who changes the band’s textures more so than Lee, who replaces another string player. At the same time as he demonstrates on both CDs, Turner is one of the most self-effacing of drummers, suggesting rhythms rather than bludgeoning them. As well, the tonal parameters of the sextet’s sound is still more dependent on the pianist’s key clips and plinks, the saxophonist’s extended reed techniques and Schurch’s vocal gymnastics than other sonic inferences. If anything, Lehn’s processed hums and grinding buzzes merely contribute to the session’s ambient tessitura. At points his contributions are virtually indistinguishable from the vaulting vibrations of Leimgruber’s horns or the quavers from Schurch’s singing saw [!]

Starting from “Almost Even Further”, Turner’s barely there bell-tree shakes, cymbal slaps and disconnected clanks underline the sextet’s performances. While cello string sweeps and the synthesizer’s distorted oscillations mewl sympathetically, Demierre’s pinpointed chording announces the exposition which is then studded with commentary from Schurch, Leimgruber and Lehn. The singer’s verbalization encompasses raucous quacks, stilted whispers and erotic breaths, while Leimgruber’s circular breathing contains agitated flutter-tonguing, continuous trills and a continuous air flow. When Lehn’s grinding delays add oblique buzzes and static vibrations so that the blend becomes nearly opaque, it’s Turner’s splintering smacks which convey the piece to a satisfying conclusion.

Lee is most assertive on “Faintly White” when her warm recital-ready tones swell to staccato lines, providing an assertive contrast to a narrative consisting of flat-line saxophone hums and peeps, synthesized vibrations from Lehn and complementary plinks from the keyboard. Following her lead, bass drum resonation plus breathy, crone-like vocalese become more aggressive, energizing an almost somnolent interface. By the final “Gorse Blossom” the undifferentiated electro-vibrations, folksy whispering and reed trills are separated and pushed aside for staccatissimo tonguing from Leimgruber.

Four months later, moving from Zürich to Köln, Leimgruber is more assertive with only Turner’s percussion strokes to react against. While some of the textures are as abstract and abrasive as those played with 6ix, a certain traditional connection exists as well. During the title tune, Leimgruber lets loose with a gush of Steve Lacy-resembling nasal pitches, while on “The Blue Bridges” Turner isolates a series of sandpaper-like strokes from his brushes that could have come from Philly Joe Jones.

Strangely enough the Hard Bop percussion suggestions and later New Thing knitting-needle-like thrusts from Turner don’t produce an equivalent retro response from the saxophonist. Instead while the percussionist deals with rubato time, Leimgruber’s altissimo sounds replicate those of a child’s plastic squeak toy. Then as Turner turns to wooden reverberating clumping and abrading cymbals on drum tops, the saxman stretches his response by obsessively altering and reconstituting every tone that comes from his reed. In contrast, the nuanced reed bites and vibrating split tones which Leimgruber brings to “Miss H’s Back Room” are coolly underlined with broken octave rim shots, plops and drags on Turner’s part.

“Middle Walk”, The Pancake Tour’s penultimate track, is the duo’s showpiece at nearly 23 minutes. An edifice of tone shading, it features Leimgruber delineating a collection of carefully spun out reed bites after he has explored every timbre emanating from his horns, further constricting the pitches with in-and-out respiration, flat-line expositions and revealing note extensions. Turner’s decorous and intermittent response incorporates nerve beats, weedy strokes and rim shots. Eventually as the percussionist moves to darbuka-like raps and gong-like quivers, Leimgruber spins out in-depth, stop-and-start reed smears for an ending that’s lean yet lyrical.

Among new or older associates or on their own, Leimgruber and Turner prove they rarely lack stratagems or sensitivity to create first-class music.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Pancake: 1. The Pancake 2. Art Jungle 3. Miss H’s Back Room 4. The Blue Bridges 5. At The Church Path 6. Middle Walk 7. The Walking Bar

Personnel: Pancake: Urs Leimgruber (tenor and soprano saxophones) and Roger Turner (snare drum, tom tom, cymbals, hi-hat, f-blade, chain and comb)

Track Listing: Almost: 1. Almost Even Further 2. As Now 3. Faintly White 4. Gorse Blossom

Personnel: Almost: Urs Leimgruber (tenor and soprano saxophones); Jacques Demierre (piano); Okkyung Lee (cello); Thomas Lehn (analogue synthesizer); Roger Turner (percussion) and Dorothea Schurch (voice and singing saw)