Ballister

Worse for the Wear
Aerophonic Records AR008

Easel

Bloom

Veto-exchange 011

Advanced improvisations with the identical number of tracks, recorded in Chicago by two youngish reed/string/percussion trios both one-third European and two-thirds Yank, confirms the continued vitality of the Windy City’s Jazz scene. Yet despite being taped almost exactly one month apart and sharing the same cellist, the CDs likewise affirm the futility of trying to paint all Free Music sessions with the same brush – the resulting sound pictures are usually much different.

The three selections on Ballister’s Worse for the Wear for instance are full balls-to-the-wall improvisations, a contemporary variant on all-American Free Jazz, pioneered by the likes of saxophonists Frank Wright and Albert Ayler. Fluid sonic ideas are ejaculated from the imaginations of alto, tenor and baritone saxophonist Dave Rempis, percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love and the cello and electronics of Fred Lonberg-Holm,. In contrast Bloom seems to come from the more rarified European Free Music tradition, where rhythm is downplayed and tonal variants are revered over emotion or narrative. Yet Lonberg-Holm is accounted for playing guitar as well as cello and electronics, joined by percussionist Michael Zerang and tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Christoph Erb.

Clear demarcation often wilts however when struck by the cold water of verification. Just as the highly abstract canvases of Jackson Pollock, which for years were used to represent far-out Jazz turn out to have been painted while the painter was grooving to Dixieland 78s, so neither CD here turns out to be distinctively American nor European.

Take the impassioned rubs, rumbles and agitated pulsations smeared all over Ballister’s improvisations, much like what you’d see exposed from the thickened gouache of an action painting. They come from ambidextrous rhythmic talents of Norwegian drummer Nilssen-Love. Correspondingly the siphoned crackles, irregularly accented burrs, and mechanized processing heard on Bloom, which reflect prototypically continental microtonalism, are created by Lonberg-Holm and Zerang, who like Rempis are as American as corn-on-the-cob. Only Erb, whose stifling reed spits and slurs help fragment the improvisations into sound stubs which are then cunningly reassembled, is European – Swiss in fact.

The most productive way to measure Ballister’s program is to imagine that the band is a Rock power trio with Rempis taking the guitar role and switching instruments on ach track just like a Rock lead guitarist – but with more finesse. Although, perhaps presaging his work with Erb & company later there are also textures on “Vulpecula” where the segmented rubs and shakes from Lonberg-Holm are almost literally guitar-like. At the same time no matter how often Rempis’ screechy reed tones or the cellist’s vibrating electronics seem to be moving the others into Heavy Metal land, Nilssen-Love’s variegated beats break up the time enough so that improvisational properties are maintained along with rhythm. Given its almost 21½-minutes minute length “Fornax” allows the three to outline variations that can be interpolated within a high intensity program. Although the introduction and conclusion of the performance are rife with splattering timbres propelled at the highest velocity, an oasis of calm is carved out in the centre so that the saxophonist can show off mellow, slower-moving reed expressions.

Over on the other session the Easel trio works with coal miner-like diligence to quarry as many novel buzzes, crackles and vibrations as possible, Unearthing distinctively original tones allows them to end expressive interactions such as “Calyx” with unique sounds that muzzle Erb’s clarinet snores with what sounds like a clock radio alarm. Other than that, Lonberg-Holm’s additional string instrument means that he can cram more sawing, picking, buzzing and oscillating processes into the tunes. But no matter the situation, Zerang insures that his cymbal crinkles plus drum pressures maintain a connective beat throughout. As sonically sophisticated with his two horns’ output as Rempis is on his three – albeit with a quieter exposition – Erb often cuts through the cacophony with tropes as different as reed stutters and circular breathing. But like members of a trapeze team, just as it seems as if he trio’s acrobatic timbres will rappel beyond the safety net, one or another reaches out to rescue each improvisation for coordinated listening.

Just as oranges and apples are both fruit, both Ballister and Easel both play Free Music. But just as each fruit has a particular taste, so do the two bands. But both can be savored for that they are.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Worse: 1. Fornax 2. Scutum 3. Vulpecula

Personnel: Worse: Dave Rempis (alto, tenor and baritone saxophones); Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello and electronics) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Bloom: 1. Corolla 2. Calyx 3. Perigon

Personnel: Bloom: Christoph Erb (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet); Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello, guitar and electronics) and Michael Zerang (drums and percussion)