Gratkowski/Brown/Winant + Gerhard E. Winkler

Vermilion Traces/Donaueschingen 2009
Leo Records CD LR 653/654

Confusing the categories once again is German saxophonist/clarinetist Frank Gratkowski on this significant double CD, which at first hearing sounds more like contemporary notated music than improvisation. But improvised it is, at least on CD1, since the saxophonist’s partners – percussionist William Winant and keyboardist Chris Brown – are California academics as comfortable working in Jazz and Improv music idioms as they are with so-called classical sounds.

The situation is more untidy on the first track of CD2, where the three are joined in a live performance in Donaueschingen by Salzburg-born composer Gerhard E. Winkler on his commissioned score “Bikini. Atoll”. Someone who creates interactive computer environments Winkler use the granular synthesis of his computer program to capture and rearrange the free improvisations created by the musicians playing. They aren`t fazed.

After all, the frequently recorded Gratkowski, whose collaborators range from bassist Wilbert De Jode and pianist Georg Graewe to large ensembles like BikBentBraam and Zeitkratzer works without hesitation in many contexts as do his American confreres. Professor of Music and Co-Director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Oakland’s Mills College, Brown has done everything from playing piano in saxophonist Glenn Spearman Double Trio and creating so-called computer network music with pc-linked musicians The Hub, to composing for entities as different as the Rova Saxophone Quartet and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. Winant, who teaches at Mills College and the University of California at Berkeley, divides his playing among New music interpretations, performances with composer John Zorn and gigs with avant-rock bands like Mr. Bungle.

Experienced in sourcing stentorian smashes and crunching rhythms if need be, the percussionist employs those talents sparingly here, instead concentrating on clatters, slides, drags and unexpected timbral inferences as he works in tandem with the others. CD1’s focal point would appear to be the more than 23½ minute “Underbelly”, which goes through as many permutations in direction as the digestive system does in reaching its final destination. Initially Winant’s thick rumbles and heavy drum stick whacking connect with the reedist’s horn squeals as they become busier and more vocal. Meantime Brown creates both staccato dynamics and widening cascades with his piano, along with distended wave forms and accordion-like juddering from signal processing. That strategy stands until the inescapably miasmatic and overwhelming climax. Winant and Brown decisively change places. Latterly staccato keyboard battering and the piano’s stopped internal strings create an interface that becomes percussive; meanwhile glockenspiel pops and vibraphone vibrations provide upfront lyricism. Finally Gratkowski’s altissimo clarinet runs introduce the climatic sequence which inflates to such an extent that it appears as if its immensity will never lessen. Made up in equal parts of signal-processed quivers, metallic percussion thwacks, lowing contrabass clarinet growls and sweeping keyboard runs, it dissipates only when Brown’s high-frequency bass clef syncopations spreads over the discordant intonations like yoghurt neutralizing hot spices.

With the percussionist limiting himself to intermittent drum top rubs plus brief clicks and creaking door-like squeaks, “Fall Back’, that CD’s other extended piece showcases Brown and Gratkowski. Bringing intonation from the piano’s fall back and soundboard into the equation, Brown focuses his improvising on internal string stretches and stops as well as cascading vibrations. Dividing his contrabass clarinet work among fog-horn-like flat-line blowing, tongue slaps and agitated bird-like squeals, Gratkowski is muscularly assertive until his solo fades into concluding reed buzzes.

Otherwise using his clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and alto saxophone in equal measure, Gratkowski demonstrates erudite reed command on the other selections as he moves from circular breathing to feather-light legato trilling used on more straight-ahead adventures like the title track. Winant’s percussion command is equally limitless, with the question of whether duck-like quacks or an episode which sound like a box of tools being spilled on the ground should be attributed to him, Gratkowski or Brown remaining unanswered. As for the keyboardist, along with other attributes, on “Retort” he seemingly replicates the distinctive sound of a guzheng with his piano strings.

Recorded a few days after those on CD1, the Donaueschingen tracks are a bit lighter with aviary trills and tongue slaps from Gratkowski, nuanced key clips from Brown, plus percussion thunder and bass drum smacks from Winant. Commissioned by SWR2 for the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2009, in truth the 20-minute “Bikini. Atoll” is no more high art than any of the tracks created by the trio alone. Although the composer’s computer program manipulating adds an extra layer of processed whooshes and oscillated wave forms, since his specialty is live granular synthesis of the others’ work, in a way Winkler’s piggybacking on their initial creativity. This technique is used by many other improvised musicians, so his chief contribution appears to be the creation of an aural mass. Although blurry quivers and sound- field cross-panning contributes a certain density in the piece, the main focus is still on the humans’ improvisations, where are both measured and mercurial.

To put it bluntly, this two-CD set is mostly a notable record of Gratkowski’s, Brown’s and Winant’s achievements. While Winkler’s presence is welcome and his composition probably got the improvisers some additional New music cred, the piece’s realization is almost completely the result of the trio’s skilful performances.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD I Vermilion Traces: 1. Trampoline 2. Retort 3. Underbelly 4. Sirens 5. Gesticulations 6. Opaque Circle 7. Fall Back 8. Funky Ghost 9. Vermilion Traces CD II Donaueschingen 2009: 1. Bikini. Atoll* 2. Vergin on Orange 3. Shadow of Hands

Personnel: Frank Gratkowski (clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet, alto saxophone); Chris Brown (piano and live electronics); William Winant (vibraphone and percussion) and

Gerhard E. Winkler (computer and live electronics)*