S4

Cold Duck
MonotypeRec Mono 096

By Ken Waxman

No relation to the sparkling wine of the same name Cold Duck is instead a series of nine biting improvisations by S4, an ad-hoc, all-star quartet of soprano saxophone innovators – one British, John Butcher – and the others Swiss: Urs Leimgruber, Hans Koch and Christian Kobi, the last of whom is also a member of the all-saxophone Konus Quartett, which interprets notated music.

Designated by Roman numerals, Cold Duck’s tracks, lasting from barely one minute to more than 12, could be the auditory sound track of an experimental ornithologist’s laboratory. But unlike such trial and error endeavors, the quartet deliberately creates timbres that range from police-whistle harshness to fipple-like songbird echoes, with a goodly collection of tongue slaps, tongue pops and snorts thrown in for good measure. At the same time its skill is such that “III” is harmonized as intimately as if by a bel-canto choir, but open enough so that every strain, partial and split tone is audible as the four work through tonal variations. Severing and re-attaching with plasticine-like continuity on “VII”, tremolo whines and lip burbles maintain a shrill pitch until the final moment when one sharp tone push the other reeds into more comfortable interaction. Then on the extended “IV”, S4 members pump air bubbles through their horns with a velocity that resembles electronic processing. After the narrative is magnified enough, it’s squeezed like a balloon, slowly deflating as growls and yelps mix with puffs and squeaks. Subsequently united circular breathing leads to an aural rainbow-like expansion of tonal colours involving all four.

That climax may be one of the fundamental triumphs and instructive pleasures of Cold Duck. No matter how many instances of sound separation exist, no individual voice is or more prominent than the others. The result is a program that confirms group cohesion while fittingly sampling a saxophone choir’s outermost elements.

—For The Whole Note October 2015