February 23, 2017
Intakt CD 275
Setola di Maiale SM 2920
An unconventional if accepted configuration at least since the Swing Era and most dazzlingly used by Cecil Taylor in the 1960s, the saxophone-piano-drums trio provides the proper balance of melody, rhythm and enrichment for a fulfilling recital. They’re like contemporary autos which attach contemporary upgrades to the standards that made the vehicle acceptable in the first place.
Both captured in concert, these trios bring individual concepts to this particular line up. Arguably the longest-lasting group in Free Music, the Schlippenbach Trio of British tenor saxophone Evan Parker, and two Germans, pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens, has been constituted in this fashion since 1972. Having experimented with composition and improvisations of many lengths – and adding the occasional bass player – the trio’s Warsaw Concert is almost 52-minutes of telepathic creation, where like a legitimate clairvoyant each player senses what the other(s) will play next and reacts accordingly. Because this is improvised music, of course, neither the solo thrusts nor the group calculations are rote or expected. Moving south and west, Area Sismica was recorded in the eponymous cultural centre of Forli, Italy by an occasional ensemble which had previously recorded a couple of CDs, not the Schlippenbach Trio’s two dozen or so. The ratio of English speakers to non-Anglos is maintained however as American pianist Thollem McDonas and two Italians: tenor and sopranino saxophonist Edoardo Marraffa and percussionist Stefano Giust collaborate. Although a generation younger, like pilgrims along the same path, the three have played with almost as many international musicians as the members of the Schlippenbach trio.
Sonic cohesion has to be negotiated at first in Forli as the elements of Marraffa’s, Giust’s and McDonas’ individual sequences move to fit together as snugly as light bulbs in lamp sockets. By “Ratio Systems”, the second track, all three are pushing themes forward with the exuberance of New Thing players but with more taste. McDonas’ strums and cascades vibrate timbres from the keyboard, inside strings and the soundboard, Marraffa’s split tones sparkle, and Giust sutures together the sections with rhythmic tick-tock accompaniment. To prove that not all is sharpness, smashing and screaming, at points here and on other tracks, the pianist dribbles out a calmer jumps and judders, while the saxophonist inhabits a breathy Coleman Hawkins-like tone. Moving from child-like buoyancy to sober mediations as they move though the recital, the trio leaps stratosphere high with kinetic pianism, kazoo-like reed cries and disconnected and multi-directional drumming at junctures, only to pull back into measured, swing sequences when least expected.
Reaching a crescendo of affiliated textures, “Il Maestro” marks the zenith of the trio’s creativity, with trickster sound detours as prominent as roundabouts on a British highway. As solemn as a procession of dignitaries, McDonas reveals a rare reductionist strategy, repeating note patterns at slower and slower paces the better to intersect with Marraffa’s low pitches, which puff out with the minimalist motion of a carnivore stalking its prey. The proverbial calm before the storm, this almost horizontal motion eventually detonates into kinetic keyboard shards, percussion pounding bedlam and knotty reed breaths, but without ever losing track of the exposition.
With the precision of pilots who have flown for many decades, it’s almost second nature for the Schlippenbach Trio to shift its music from high boil to low simmer during a performance. The awe-inspiring revelation is how fluently – and often – this takes place. Maintaining mainstream concepts like a dismantled building’s shadow still visible on an attached structure, the pianist is perfectly capable of sounding out deep romantic interludes or Art Tatum-like complete keyboard investigations if it suits him. He can also limit his accompaniment to reductionist note expression or discharge Cecil Taylor-like dynamic atonality when he sees fit. As deliberate and relaxed in his drumming as Barak Obama is in his speaking style, Lovens prefers the suggestion of rhythmic motion to full beat-mongering here. Throughout his cymbal clunks and rumbles provide the rhythmic impetus when needed. Should von Schlippenbach power up and abruptly begin rapping out patterning stride allusions, the drummer hardens his response with unexpected whorls and wallops.
Parker, who probably has the most identifiable tone of any contemporary saxophonist, likewise jumps from smears to slurps to stutters when needed. As chary with muluphonics as a sophisticated woman is supposed to be with her perfume, on a couple of occasions he erupts into protracted circular breathing, adding new spices to the hypnotic stew the three are concocting, but in such a manner that his solo dovetails into sparse piano accompaniment in one case or a display of metallic Chinese cymbal reverb in another. More so than the storied 1960s Taylor trio, the Schlippenbach crew is better is better balanced since Parker’s invention and technique are more adventurous than Taylor’s sidekick Jimmy Lyons often was. Yet as Parker demonstrates in the “Warsaw Concert’s” penultimate moments, his hiccupping slurs and tongue flutters meld as sympathetically with the others’ strategies as Lyons did in Taylor’s bands. Bringing the clattering clamor to a final climax, its years of extrasensory perception-like cooperation allows this trio to add a sense of elated swing to its creation along with its technical prowess. It ends the track exactly where no extensions are needed. Unfortunately the audience demanded an encore and the less-than-five minute “Where is Kinga” is merely Readers’ Digest version of the preceding track.
This vestigial addition notwithstanding, both CDs offer high-quality variations on the saxophone-piano-drums methodology.
Track Listing: Area: 1. Let’s Change It 2. Ratio Systems 3. Double Mind 4. Il Maestro 5. Sismica 6. Wonderful Spoken Word
Personnel: Area: Edoardo Marraffa (tenor and sopranino saxophones); Thollem McDonas (piano) and Stefano Giust (drums and percussion)
Track Listing: Warsaw: 1. Warsaw Concert 2. Where Is Kinga?
Personnel: Warsaw: Evan Parker (tenor saxophone); Alexander von Schlippenbach (piano) and Paul Lovens (drums)