Blaise Siwula/Luciano Troja

Rags to Ragas
NoFrillsMusic nfm 012

By Ken Waxman

Actors like Lee Marvin and James Gandolfini surprised many when they shifted from playing heavies to leading men. Followers of avant-garde sounds may find themselves in a similar head-spinning position hearing Blaise Siwula on Rags to Ragas. Known for his shepherding of the long-running C.O.M.A. series and a slew of advanced jazz CDs, the alto saxophonist/clarinetist reveals a new musical persona on this disc with Sicilian pianist Luciano Troja. It’s probably the reedist’s CD closest to the mainstream. That’s mainstream in quotes however, for Siwula hasn’t suddenly been transformed from rugged Superman into a Clark Kent-like smooth jazzer. Like thorns hidden in a rose bush there are still spiky tones audible during the CD’s half-dozen tracks.

Troja, who often works with vocalists, may contribute to Siwula’s change in orientation. After all even avant-garde Italian musician have a tendency towards romance and throughout the disc, the pianist cushions the reed work with balladic motifs. Yet as the giveaway title indicates, improvisations are frequently rooted in earlier song forms. Siwula’s hitherto unknown link to a recumbent Lester Young approach is revealed. Playing clarinet on the title tune Siwula’s relaxed output is bluesy not heavily syncopated. with the pianist supplying a multi-fingered attack as the piece evolves, concluding the tune as a happy foot-tapper. Low-pitched and gently vibrated “Sun Surgency” matches similar bluesy reeds slurs and the pianist’s bottom-note patterning for a story telling exercise.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of normalcy like a teenager home alone in a horror flick. Looming abstract sequences arrive on the CD’s final tracks. During “When there's Freedom for All”, kinetic sprays of Troja’s multiphonics meet staccato reed pops wrenched from Siwula’s horn like pills from a blister pack. More spectacularly his final cadences reference both “A Love Supreme” and “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid”. Transformed like Bruce Banner into The Incredible Hulk and back again on “Next Time George”, the reedist’s clear mid-range flutters become stutters and tongue slaps, relaxing into a steady swing line by the finale. Meanwhile, Troja’s tough, tremolo warms to become a near-lullaby. A unique take on Siwula’s art and a delineation of his partnership with Troja, this CD is well worth investigating.

Tracks: Carousel Dream; Sun Surgency; There And Back Again; Ragtime in Brooklyn; When there's Freedom for All; Next Time George

Personnel: Blaise Siwula (alto saxophone, clarinet) and Luciano Troja (piano)

—For The New York City Jazz Record April 2017