Willi Kellers Trio

Live at Aufstruz
Gligg Records 036

Ton Trio II

On and On

Singlespeed Music SSM-013

Jazz’s standard sax-bass-drum format gets a couple of high-energy work-outs on these CDs, which differ in more than a few aspects. On and On comes from a 2013 San Francisco studio session; while Live at Aufstruz is a Berlin club date recorded almost four years before that.

Essentially the first date is a showcase for the composing and improvising skills of alto saxophonist Aram Shelton, backed by bassist Scott Brown and drummer Alex Vittum. Part of the cross-country connection between the Bay area and Chicago, the saxophonist’s virtuosity is unparalleled, plus the nine compositions could be termed Be-Bop scorchers with taste. Consisting of two 20-minute-plus group improvisations the Berlin CD relates more generally to Europeanized Free Jazz. Both Aussie in Berlin bassist Clayton Thomas and German alto saxophonist Frank Paul Schubert have played with numerous experimenters in that city’s evolving city scene. Meanwhile drummer and trio leader, German Willi Keller has been involved with this style since the early 1980s, logging gigs with the likes of saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Thomas Borgmann and in a trio with Keith and Julie Tippett.

Essentially the strategy is similar throughout Live. Working as if each man is the equidistant angles of a triangle, each part is blended with the others; with none ever piled in superior fashion atop the others. One concession to conventionality is Thomas’ bass line, which frequently advances in the form of an unshakable ostinato. Depending on cymbal ruffs, drum top rubs and slaps that emphasize the wooden portions of his rims, Keller’s percussion exposition also evolve like well-oiled pistons. Upfront, Schubert’s multiphonic smears, plus tongue slaps are forceful, but only suggest repressed violence when up against assertions such as Thomas’ triple stopping given additional heft by using the edge of an auto license plate.

By the second, lengthier track, a feeling of menacing physicality has been added to the improv, with rough stropping from the bassist meeting piercing kazoo-like blasts from Schubert. Keller’s pulsating rumble also quickens with swizzle-stick like raps against parts of his kit. Speeding up from propelled snores, the saxophonist’s vibrated cries reach an explosive climax, before turning to mellow squeaks, with downturning percussion clanks signaling the session’s completion.

Shelton whose affiliations with Chicago players such as trumpeter Josh Berman and drummer Tim Daisy usually results in organizing larger ensembles, tailors Ton Trio’s pieces to a smaller canvas. Keeping the momentum going, he moves between up-tempo burners and slower balladic jaunts, constantly involving the bassist and drummer, but always being the primary soloist. That doesn’t prevent Brown and Vittum from asserting themselves; however it’s mostly in the context of parallel counterpoint between bass and reed as on “We Were Told” or having the drummer emphasize the hard and heavy Bop-like line that is “Let’s All Go.” The former is a dramatic statement of bent note slurs on Shelton’s part expands on round-robin-like properties as Brown’s tremolo strumming adds to the drama. “Let’s All Go” takes its shape from Vittum’s rim clanks and the bassist’s bumping stops. This allows Shelton to bring un-self-conscious emotion to his solos. Tunes can be enervating as well as high energy, but with no loss of commitment. For instance the slow-paced “Findings” finds Shelton in laid-back mode, investigating his lower register in almost tenor range as his stretched-out timbres brush against “Ol’ Man River” insinuations.

Although dealing with variations in chronological, geographical and musical time, both trios are equally engaged and unfazed by the challenges its members have set themselves. Each is a valid expression of contemporary improvisation.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: On: 1. This Reminds Me 2. Orange Poppies 3. We Were Told 4. On and On 5. Let’s All Go 6. Layover 7. Freshly Pressed 8. Findings 9. Turncoats

Personnel: On: Aram Shelton (alto saxophone); Scott Brown (bass) and Alex Vittum (drums)

Track Listing: Live: 1. Just Over and Now 2. And Now Just Over

Personnel: Live: Frank Paul Schubert (alto saxophone); Clayton Thomas (bass) and Willi Kellers (drums)