Gebhard Ullmann/Achim Kaufmann

Geode
Leo Records CD LR 727

Aki Takase/Daniele D'Agaro

Aki Takase/Daniele D'Agaro

Artesuono ART 150

Vivid, experimental and unpredictable these two piano-reed duets are reminiscent of a boxing match in which each of the fighters is equally matched. But unlike a routine pugilist contest, the idea isn’t for one protagonist to triumph over the other, but to instead transform the match into the equivalent of tag-team wresting, amalgamating dual skills into one to score. Although the matchup between Japanese pianist Aki Takase and Italian tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Daniele D'Agaro may appear more exotic than the dual improvisations of two Germans: tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann and pianist Achim Kaufmann, all have ties to the expanded free-form gestalt that has characterized Berlin-centred improv over the past few years.

Like a navigator skilled in dealing with distinct currents, Berlin-based Takase often pilots a course alongside other reedists such as Rudi Mahall and Silke Eberhard. As for Udine-based D'Agaro, his experience includes bands like Disorder at the Border as well as duo situations, including one with pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, Takase’s husband. On this disc he sashays from warm clarinet tones to saxophone airs that range from breathy bites to harsh verbalization. An admirer of Monk, Takase adds that sort of rhythmic displacement into her work on tracks like the reedist’s “Long Armed Woman” and (no surprise) on Monk’s own “Raise Four”. Trading high-pitched reed glissandi and ratcheting piano chording elsewhere, like tightrope walkers the two sometimes ascend to potentially dangerously heights. But once up there they never lose their footing, as the7y confirm on “the pianist’s “The Glow of the Morning”. Here a duet of galloping single key strokes and clarinet puffs maintains the horizontal interface. Oddly enough the pianist’s acerbically titled “Sauer Grapes” finds her processes most related to spongy romantic echoes, while D’Agaro’s contralto clarinet timbres are as tight yet soft as warped weft. In the same way, Takase’s “The Angel Is an Evil” exists as if viewed through a funhouse mirror. What begins with shattering reed tones and stratospheric keyboard pumps quickly moves past bravado virtuosity for its own sake to settle into a dynamic light-hearted piece with echoes of jolly Banda-like rythms.

While there are comparable fluctuations between light and dark, hard and soft variables in the Ullmann-Kaufmann duets, their dozen selections are more of a piece. Like the other two players they have extensive involvement in these duo situations. Among his many other projects, Ullmann is long-time member of the Conference Call group with pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, while Kaufmann frequently plays in a trio with reedist Frank Gratkowski. Since Ullmann varies his contributions depending on whether he’s using his tenor saxophone or bass clarinet, his tone and attack reflects these circumstances, like an attentive psychologist with a patient. With enough patience to trade background and foreground roles with the mercurial Ullmann, the pianist also creates with the versatility of a quick change artist. A self-penned solo feature, “Eulenblind”, is gentrified and balladic, with the perception that notes are raindrops, dancing and splattering against window panes. Meantime “Storm Inside” soars as if it’s as rent-party soundtrack, with Kaufmann’s Stride piano pumps meeting speedy bites and shaking vibratos from the reedist.

These role-playing variations where one musician becomes the Lone Ranger and the other Tonto, until they change place, keeps these two-instrument session from revolving into sameness. With contralto bass clarinet tones used to express emotion, in his solo turn on “Jasper Ax” Kauffman twists irregular vibrations into a horizontal line, punctuate his solo with shattering honks and end with barely-there breaths. This gentling works particularly well on “Bone, Grizzle and Quartz” as Ullmann curves air into the piano’s innards, vibrating small cymbals resting on the strings to match Kauffmann’s plucks and ricocheting rumbles.

Most of the time he’s more aggressive though, using tongue slaps, reed squeaks and tremolo slurs to make his point(s). Adding to the conversation, the pianist responds in kind, creating a kinetic percussiveness as he plays. Perhaps the best instance of this conception is on “Roadside Verges” where sloppy tenor saxophone lines become so jagged they’re like rapiers cleanly cutting through flesh and encouraging the pianist to push out notes that are hard and assertive but as precise as a heart surgeon’s thrusts. They move the dual trajectory back to solid dual expositions that finally meld.

Anything but polite chamber music, both duets prove that with challenge and cooperation enough sonic colors arise from reeds and piano to paint a satisfying musical picture.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Aki: Dodona 2. Long Armed Woman 3.The Angel Is an Evil 4. Ultramarine #74 5. Sauer Grapes 6. Raise Four 7. The Glow of the Morning 8. The Pantry Blues 9. Hinter Meinem Ruecken 10. Contromano 11. Never, Ever

Personnel: Aki: Daniele D'Agaro (tenor saxophone and clarinet) and Aki Takase (piano)

Track Listing: Geode: 1. Interanimation 2. Lightly Enticed 3. Roadside Verges 4. Of Linnets and Ivory 5. Fault-lines 6. Eulenblind 7. Fleckgeist 8. Zircon Shuffle 9. Bone, Grizzle and Quartz 10. Jasper Ax 11. Storm Inside 12. Cobweb Interiors

Personnel: Geode: Gebhard Ullmann (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet) and Achim Kaufmann (piano)