Meloni/Dunmall/Dessanay/Sanders

Pictures of a Quartet
SLAM 539

Maroney/Ilgenfritz/Niescier/Drury

Mind Games

OutNow Recordings ONR 011

With the saxophone plus rhythm section such a common configuration in Jazz, improvisers must resort to new stratagems to bring some originality to the proceedings. These quartets do so, but in widely different manners. The combo on Pictures of a Quartet for instance, works on melding variants of atonal improvisations with compositional impulses that relate to the background of Italian pianist Sebastiano Meloni. Mind Games on the other hand transforms the quartet symbiosis by building many of the tracks around the unexpected timbres generated by Denman Maroney’s prepared piano and Andrew Drury unusual percussion set.

Besides the bassist and percussionist, who have worked with other advanced improvisers including bassist Mark Dresser and violinist Jason Kao Hwang, that CD’s other contributors are another Brooklynite, bassist James Ilgenfritz, who has worked with reedists John Zorn and Anthony Braxton among others, and German alto saxophonist Angelika Niescier, whose Yank associates include pianist Kris Davis. On Pictures of a Quartet, saxophonist Paul Dunmall, best-known as a founding member of Mujician, and drummer Mark Sanders, who has seconded many other saxmen such as Evan Parker and John Butcher, are the London-based part of the quartet, while bassist Sebastiano Dessanay is a Sardinian who is often in the United Kingdom. Meloni lives in Cagliari, Italy.

Geographic separation aide, Pictures of a Quartet is notable for both group and individual creativity. The pianist for instance is spectacular on his own, specializing in high-frequency Freebop rife with jagged tremolo runs, that frequently minimizes the distance between McCoy Tyner’s and Cecil Taylor’s conceptions. Meloni is equally sympathetic as an accompanist with his strategies ranging from processional chording to key clipping and sliding. In one case for instance he matter-of-factly knits a sonic carpet of welcoming textures underneath Dunmall’s breathy, low-register tenor saxophone runs.

Elsewhere a series of “Sketches for Two” show off each band member’s facility in duo formation, as for example piano soundboard quivers meet buzzing bow motions from Dessanay; or the saxophonist’s expansive slurs and twisted vibrato join the bassist’s studied pops and plucks. The defining track is “Sketches for Two – No. 3”, when Meloni and Sanders are comfortable enough in their improvising to suggest earlier drum-piano partnerships like Taylor’s with Andrew Cyrille. Moreover they move into unexpected areas as the drummer’s rolls and pops morph into drags, flams and finally bounces, while the pianist’s keyboard gymnastics encompasses tandem cascades and kinetic note clusters. Yet all this takes place without either losing the thematic thread.

In quartet formation the widely separated “Movements No. 1”, “Movements No. 2” and “Movements No. 3” demonstrate how profound instrumental blending takes place in spite of sequences that appear barely fraternal, rather than identical. For example, “Movements No. 1”, vibrates from an exposition of tenor saxophone line slithers, rat-tat-tat drumming and walking bass lines into an abstract deconstruction featuring Meloni’s splayed and staccato runs, woody bass string plucks plus resounding reed slurs. With bass string stresses and saxophone accelerations “Movements No. 2” corkscrews the theme into widening expressiveness. Tellingly, “Movements No. 3” is the jazziest, most accommodating, but also most atonal line. Meloni’s metronomic comping and Sanders’ drum-top recoils give Dunmall license to swallow narrative swaths at supersonic speeds until his harsh extrusions work their way into a straight line that connects with the other three players as they improvise with the same intensity.

Even taking into account the pitch of her smaller horn, Niescier is not the dominant presence on Mind Games that Dunmall is on the other disc; nor is her role the same. While both quartets aim for dexterous melding, her slurred trills and squeaks more often than not help fill in the background of the eight compositions, with broader strokes restricted to the Maroney-Drury interface. Similarly Ilgenfritz’s scrubs and plucks are overwhelmingly bonding, with his only real expansion into stropped and stopped lines the final showpiece, “Warum Bist Du Gekommen?”

Almost 18½-minutes long or more than double the length of the other tracks, that Niescier composition is angled towards the mid-range, mixing atonality and so-called understated coolness. Ilgenfritz is cast in the Scott LaFaro or Chuck Israel role, while the saxophonist’s whorls and twitters link her to Lee Konitz. Maroney’s double-time exposition is in the Bill Evans’ mode, but his sharpened chording, as well as the serrated plucking and strumming of his instrument’s prepared inner strings appropriately negates any hint of imitation. Crucially, Drury’s clatters, drags and pops, plus his use of bells, dustpans and other objects makes his playing more upfront than most percussionists who recorded with Konitz or Evans

The piano-drums duo is also front-and-centre on Maroney’s “One Off or Two”, a bouncy line that that sails along on balanced piano keys stops and drum rattling as the saxophonist outlines the jittery, unpressurized theme. In contrast, the group improv, “Perplexia” finds Niescier’s cascading trills underlined by a variation of dual piano work, with both parts played by the composer. His instrument’s prepared inner strings shudder so that tones from the bars, bowls and blocks placed upon them create sharp interjections; on the keyboard itself, tone clusters are sprinkled and individual keys dusted. “Green St.”, another group composition finds everyone playing hotter in the mainstream Jazz sense. The drums pitter-patter, rubato piano strings are bowed and scrapped, Ilgenfritz outputs steadfast pumps and Niescier’s off-centre squealing and tone fluttering alternates with the pianist’s string slaps.

As long as there are musicians willing to deal with an instrumental form in a novel fashion, no combo configuration can be thought of as clichéd. Eight musicians from four countries prove that truism with these discs.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Pictures: 1. Four Phases 2. Nocturne 3. Movements No. 1 4. First Landscape 5. Trio 6. Movements No. 2 7. Sketches for Two - No.1 8. Sketches for Two - No.2 9. Sketches for Two - No.3 10. Sketches for Two - No.4 11. Second Landscape 12. Movements No. 3

Personnel: Pictures: Paul Dunmall (tenor and soprano saxophones); Sebastiano Meloni(piano); Sebastiano Dessanay (bass) and Mark Sanders (drums)

Track Listing: Mind: 1. Ledig House 2. One Off or Two 3. Perplexia 4. Social Hypochondria 5. Innervista 6. Canter 7. Green St. 8. Warum Bist Du Gekommen?

Personnel: Mind: Angelika Niescier (alto saxophone); Denman Maroney (prepared piano); James Ilgenfritz (bass) and Andrew Drury (drums and percussion)