Samuel Blaser Consort in Motion

A Mirror to Machaut
Songlines SGL 1604-2

Samuel Blaser/Benoît Delbecq/Gerry Hemingway

Fourth Landscape

Nuscope CD 1027

Making a big noise for himself – literally – is Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser, who in the past half-decade has moved from regularly working with local players to solidifying an international profile. These two fine discs, recorded within a month of one another and both featuring expatriate American drummer Gerry Hemingway, go a long way towards explaining Blaser’s appeal.

Born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, with his musical education taking place both in Europe and the U.S., Blaser tempers his academic bent with valid emotion. Furthermore, while his playing is oriented more towards technical experimentation than gutbucket jollity, he possess a valid compositional bent as well. Here for instance although both CDs are a similar admixture of through-composed and improvised textures, a unique conception is behind each.

With French pianist Benoît Delbecq completing the trio, Fourth Landscape features interpretations of pieces by all three band members. Mirror to Machaut’s compositions on the other hand, are ostensibly by the trombonist, but the challenge he set himself is to compose lines influenced by the two early Renaissance composers, Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) and Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474). Delbecq is in the producer’s chair on the second CD, so his place on the piano bench is taken by American pianist Russ Lossing. Fellow Yank Drew Gress is the bassist, while Belgian Joachim Badenhorst brings his tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet to the session.

Keeping A Mirror to Machaut from becoming merely an exercise in re-creation, none of Blaser’s pieces are particularly ecclesiastical, in spite of the fact that the 14th and 15th century musical protagonists both had church affiliations. Actually, despite their title(s), the supple joy and unexpected noises sometimes advanced by the band may appear almost blasphemous. For instance “Hymn” may begin with hymn-like voicing, but soon develops into a secular swing piece driven by blats and squeals from the trombonist and churning cascades from the pianist which ups the excitement factor.

At the same time it appears compositions can be made modern-sounding, whether the origin is modern or post-medieval. Compare Blaser’s “Color” with Machaut’s “De fortune me doy pleindre et loer” for example. With its swallowed bass clarinet multiphonics meeting screechy trombone slides and jiggy electric piano comping, the first could be plainsong as performed by The (Jazz) Crusaders. As for the Machaut piece, torqued burbling from the trombonist plus whispery contralto from the reedist adds contemporary sonic architecture to the scene-setting early chamber music. By the finale it becomes a tune that is smooth without being enervating.

Taken from beginning to end, the 11 tracks fit together like the sequences in a suite. Adding to the cohesion are extended techniques. One would figure that stentorian blasts from Blaser’s horn making it sound like a bass clarinet or Lossing’s kinetic string-and-keys showcases might have sent the 14th and 15th composers scurrying towards some refuge, suspecting transformative witchcraft. Further complicating matters, “Complainte: Tels rit au main qui au soir pleure”, a Machaut line arranged by Blaser, even suggest a fanciful scenario that finds Gil Evans arranging 14th century church music. Certainly the warm horn harmonies that follow contrasting light piano comping and lockstep bass and drum lines relate more to Birth of the Cool (Davis) than Birth of the World (Genesis). Its conclusion is as much progressive as plainsong, with the rhythm section upturning the tension and clean piano lines providing a proper low-key finale.

On the other CD, Hemingway’s three-part “Fourth Landscape”, which gives the session its name, actually is a suite. Ingenious throughout, it manages to work herky-jerky percussion, descriptive and panoramic keyboard chords and clicks, plus fierce tonguing from Blaser into a thematic exposition. Cunningly the third section uses silences and insinuations of plunger brass and piano patterns to solidify the narrative with the drummer’s whacks, sweeps and rubs confirming the melding.

Graceful and mellow arrangements, which bond the instruments, characterize most of the rest of the session. Despite this, the interaction is such that none of the participants has to abandon contemporary technical extensions or power moves for romantic understatement. Delbecq finds specific places for tone poem pianism; Hemingway for propelled clunks and pops; and Blaser is able to dip into near-bass trombone-weighted slurs plus arpeggiated sharpness while alternately accompanying or soloing. Overall the contributions from each man join to paint a complete sonic picture on this CD. Meanwhile, the other disc showcases a creation with more attention to detail and ornamentation via the additional players.

Both discs are fine instances of Blaser’s and other musicians’ mature art.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Mirror: 1. Laak 2. Long 3. Fourth Landscape I 4. Fourth Landscape II 5. Fourth Landscape III 6. I Got Home Late Last Night 7. Couleurs 8. Entre Parentheses 9. Outremer 10. Ricochets 11. Toits et Tuiles

Personnel: Mirror: Samuel Blaser (trombone); Benoît Delbecq (piano and Novation bass station) and Gerry Hemingway (drums percussions and mouth harp)

Track Listing: Fourth: 1. Hymn 2. Douce dame jolie 3. Saltarello 4. Dame, se vous m’estes lointeinne 5. Color 6. Cantus Planus 7. De fortune me doy pleindre et loer 8. Bohemia 9. Linea 10. Introit 11. Complainte: Tels rit au main qui au soir pleure

Personnel: Fourth: Samuel Blaser (trombone); Joachim Badenhorst (tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet); Russ Lossing (piano, Rhodes, Wurlitzer pianos); Drew Gress (bass) and Gerry Hemingway (drums and percussion)