Alberto Braida/Giancarlo Locatelli

Nel Margine
Red Toucan RT 9346

Erb/Baker

Bottervagl

Veto-Records/exchange 006

Hypothetically as uncomplicated as a private jam between musical friends, duos featuring only a pianist and a reed player add an element of riskiness when freer music is involved. Whether the participants are long-time associates like pianist Alberto Braida and clarinetist Giancarlo Locatelli, both from Italy; or on-again-off-again collaborators like Lucerne-based tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Christoph Erb and Chicago pianist Jim Baker, facing and overcoming spatial and sonic challenges often disrupts the supposed chamber-music-like coziness of these dates. Avoiding the danger of languorous over-indulgence is always a fear, whether the session is completely improvised as is Bottervagl, or the mixture of compositions from both participants which characterizes Nel Margine.

Perhaps it’s because of the preponderance of mid-to-slow tempo tracks on the Braida/ Locatelli CD and the presence of spikier, livelier tunes from Baker and Erb, but the former appears more profoundly European than the other. Braida, whose associations have included more extroverted types such as saxophonist Eduardo Marrowfat and bassist Wilbur De Joode, has been concertising with Locatelli since 1996. Baker on the other hand is a local jazz-improv keyboardist par excellence, having backed everyone from pioneering AACM founder/saxophonist Fred Anderson to young stylists like drummer Mike Reed. Erb, a one-time Chicago resident, played with the Windy City’s most cosmopolitan stylists during his stint there and continues to do so in Switzerland.

That’s why his reed work here, especially on tenor saxophone, combines the mercurial liveliness of many of Chicago’s top improvisers with the atonal post-modernism of many players from his native land. In short, irregular vibrations double and triple tonguing plus split-tone exposure are common parts of his game plan. In response, the pianist outputs crisp and sharpened runs plus aggressive cadenzas that at points touch on staccato ragtime-like figures.

Erb tries out both extremes of reed inflection on the galloping “Kelebek”. Initially his puffed multiphonics are as impressively spiky as Baker’s direct key clipping is slick; later on echoing piano chords are inflated to soften the saxophonist’s narrow tongue stops. On “Tximeleta” however, the intersection is reversed with the pianist’s cascades getting tougher and more disassociated as the tune progresses, while framing Erb’s lip-buzzing and abrasively tactile runs with a tremolo carpet of passing tones.

The reedist also brings both these qualities to his bass clarinet work. On the melodious yet staccato “Gwilwileth” for instance, his exposition features chalumeau lines spread with chocolate-like smoothness. Yet these harmonies evaporate when subjected to Baker’s nearly perpendicular strums, cadenzas and hard key clipping. These challenges lead Erb to extrude mouth-tightened strident whistles, slurs and bites, until latterly the two relax into a dual fantasia of welcoming piano lines and chromatic reed timbres.

Turning to Nel Margine, it appears that the voicing and texture of a performance crucially depends on which member of the duo composed the tune. In the main, Braida’s pieces seem to be processional, moderato and balladic, while Locatelli’s are harsher, speedier and more in-your-face. For instance the pianist’s “Once it was the colour of saying”, sounds for all intents and purposes like a Hollywood ballad. On it a linear keyboard exposition gives way to a multi-hued exposition from the clarinetist. With each man seconding each other’s initial statements, the satisfying result isn’t unlike “Ninna nanna (a Paul)”, another poignant Braida line, which deconstructs only when Locatelli’s slurs are serrated into puffs.

Locatelli’s heads can be serene and sympathetic as well; but an additional prickliness from either improviser prevents them from becoming too slushy. “Mese lunare” for example, meanders along almost interminably at a low energy with the tempo set by the clarinetist, and concludes with lullaby suggestions. If not for a syncopated middle section from Braida that challenges these delicate vibrations, it seems as if the piece could vanish into the thin air. Then a track such as “La semina” manages to retain its chromatic identity even as Braida and Locatelli chase each other with low-frequency chording and reed slurs like a fox and a hound.

Finding a middle ground between nervous an enervated, the real essence of the session is expressed elsewhere.

“Camminare api” for instance, composed by Locatelli, contains enough andante piano runs and clarinet growls that it threatens to become a POMO Italianate Bop. Meanwhile “La casa”, despite tremolo keyboard crunches and harsh altissimo reed cries, still consists of enough basic instrumental technique that it suggests what Benny Goodman and Mel Powell may have sounded like had they decided to play Schoenberg. Maintaining equilibrium between strict chromaticism and wide irregular vibrations that strip prettiness from the program, Locatelli sharpened pitch meets Braida’s double-timed crunches in such a way that Jazz, Pop, Serialism and Abstraction are referenced at various times. Finally, “The Hat” is almost unalterably chiaroscuro, with only the sinewy reed lines keeping it from becoming monochrome.

A lot more than basement jam sessions, both these CDs demonstrate the power of dual creation. While a lack of discipline on one hand and dynamism on the other prevents either session from reaching top rank, the lines of demarcation for further sonic exploration are established and will likely be acted on in the future.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Nel: 1. Ninna nanna (a Paul) 2. Once it was the colour of saying 3. La casa 4. Sketches 5. P&M 6. La semina 7. The Hat 8. Fischiettando 9. Camminare api 10. Mese lunare 11. Dal margine

Personnel: Nel: Giancarlo Locatelli (Bb and bass clarinets) and Alberto Braida (piano)

Track Listing: Here: 1. Motŷl 2. Tximeleta 3. Kupu-kupu 4. Gwilwileth 5. Kelebek

Personnel: Here: Christoph Erb (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet) and Jim Baker (piano)