Simon Nabatov Trio

Picking Order
Leo Records CD LR 765

Oğuz Büyükberber and Simon Nabatov

Wobbly Strata

Trytone Records TT559-067

Like a scholar still seeking more and diverse knowledge as he gets older, pianist Simon Nabatov, 57, keeps evolving musically without neglecting his earlier concepts. The Russian-born, long-time resident of Köln, Germany, who started his career in New York in 1979, doesn’t shy away from any challenges or configurations, whether playing solo piano or part of ensembles. Equally descriptive, two of his most recent sessions are unique as well. Wobbly Strata is a first-time duo with Turkish-born, Amsterdam-based clarinetist Oğuz Büyükberber, while Picking Orders is a trio date with German bassist Stefan Schönegg and Swiss drummer Dominik Mahnig. Although Nabatov has frequently recorded in the latter format, this is his initial outing with Schönegg and Mahnig, both of whom are about three decades younger than him.

This doesn’t mean that the seven tracks on the trio disc suggest the idea of a pack leader giving instruction to young pups. Instead the drummer’s hard smacks and the bassist’s centred thumps add as much to the interaction as Nabatov’s playing, which within instances can ricochet from dynamic Cecil Taylor-like emphasis to neo-classical waterfall-like note spurting. This is especially obvious on “Fill in the Blanks”, the introductory and longest track in this session recorded at Köln’s the Loft, and a location as associated with Nabatov as the Five Spot was with Thelonious Monk. Comparisons to Monk are apt. Never as quirky in his playing as the American icon, the classically trained pianist similarly retains links to the tradition and can be as lyrical and balladic in spots when he wishes. Elsewhere he’s up for any single note challenge, rhythmically or chordally, and on this track emphasises both roles: with a delicate lyrical bent to the tune’s first coda, toughening it with emphasized thumps second time around.

Lighter and darker the Jekyll and Hyde sides of Nabatov’s piano persona are displayed throughout the rest of the disc. A track such as “It’s a Given” gives a demonstration of his keyboard command for instance. Starting slowly like a sprinter preparing for a race, his romantic key sprinkles soon give way to Olympic-Game-level key clashes and cascades, where Earl Hines-like utilizing of notes and patterns crop up alongside unlimited atonal expanses. However like Jaki Byard or Monk, he never loses the swing element.

Mahnig’s rumble and pop coupled with Schönegg’s walking bass line on “Turning Point” as well as the bassist’s string buzzing introduction to the sardonically titled “Growing a Soul Patch” set up animated swing parameters that almost move the trio via the Wayback Machine to 1950s-1960s-style pop Jazz. Still Nabatov’s sophisticated investigation of theme variations on the first tune and plunge into impressionism on the second ground the program in 21st Century post-modern improvisation.

The same could be said for Wobbly Strata, since Büyükberber, when he isn’t dabbling with live-electronics, has played with stylists as different as conductor Butch Morris and trombonist Nils Wogram. Vacillating all over the tracks like two sailors whose ship has hit turbulent waters, the two careen from mainstream-styled unity, to twitchy near-cakewalk excess and blast off into the thinner oxygen of hard-core atonality. Clumps of high-energy piano chording expose more from both the highest and lower extremes of the instrument’s speaking length than a playmate would have revealed in a 1950s’ pictorial enlivens “Calm Waters” . So do bass clarinet growls. Eventually though the tune sooths both contributions and fully reflects its title. Coming from the opposite direction like the other half of a Janus face, syncopated keyboard juggling mated with first reed snorts and pops then staccato tongue trills on the title tune suggest experiments with what so-called classical composers of the 1920s considered Jazz. Still, irregular clarinet lines and key thumping on Nabatov’s part combine to show that this European team can mock their forbearers’ conceits and in the process create profoundly modern music. This situation is made crystal clear on the concluding “Chrystal Clear” as deft sonic movements from both partners slip aggressively into echoing meditative tranquility.

Two new configurations for Nabatov create two more impressive programs.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Wobbly: 1. Cross Play Averted 2. Calm Waters 3. Asked and Unanswered 4. Smudges 5. Wobbly Strata 6. Atempause

Personnel: Wobbly: Oğuz Büyükberber (clarinet, bass clarinet) and Simon Nabatov (piano)

Track Listing: Picking: 1. Fill in the Blanks 2. Aria 3. Picking Order 4. Growing a Soul Patch 5. Turning Point 6. It’s a Given 7. Chrystal Clear

Personnel: Picking: Simon Nabatov (piano); Stefan Schönegg (bass) and Dominik Mahnig (drums)