February 23, 2020
Gresncsó String Collective
Adyton Records AGZE 09 CD
Moving away from those deadening “with strings” sessions of the past where any number of accompanying string players helped a Jazz soloist create cloying, supposedly more palatable programs, free improvisers have turned the approach on its head. Today the dissonant tones and singular textures are as apt to come from guitarists, violinists, violists, cellists and bassists as they are from other instrumentalists. Meanwhile the horn players, whose solos were formerly sweetened by the strings, have become part of the ensemble, cooperating in a compelling program. These sessions feature one saxophonist interacting with various string player subsets. Each is an improvement on conventional “with strings” sets, but the subversion of expected string harmonies is what decides which stand out more than others.
Oddly enough, the 18 tracks on River Music are the closest to conventional string-sessions. The caveat is necessary because featured is multi-reedist István Grencsó, one of the standard bearers of Free Music in Hungary, who has played with everyone from Ken Vandermark to Szilárd Mezei, Additionally, rather than violinists and cellos, the backing comes from Sándor Szabó and Roland Heidrich, who mix their acoustic and electric guitars excursions with live processing as well as bassist Róbert Benkő. One drawback though, is the extreme briefness of almost half of the tracks which hover around the 30-second mark. Because of this only a single thought can be expressed without really enough time to be explored. On examination, that means that “Night boatman”, the lengthiest track, is also the most striking. On it an amiable clarinet driven theme is accompanied by guitar lines processed in such a manner that the altered and squeezed tones move backwards with singular horizontal frails and ping-ponged string squeezes like a 21st Century duet between Joe Pass and Herb Ellis.
Benkő’s double bass pumps are more prominent earlier on the disc providing the proper bottom so the other players can outline their ideas more freely. This is particularly advantageous on tracks such as “Cane” where his thumping continuum is further decorated with guitar cross frails as Gresncsó’s move from chalumeau register clarinet to tenor saxophone arabesque trills dovetail into the guitarists’ romantic narrative. The saxophonist’s hitherto hidden talents as a trumpeter (!) are also highlighted on a couple of tracks, most notably “The sailor’s compliment”. Here a rudimentary brassiness is nicely contrasted with the date’s strongest lead guitar work, seconded by the other guitarist’s contrapuntal echoes and a walking bass line from Benkő. The happy result is vibrating pops and slides that are fluid without being frail. Still other tracks, like the title tune for instance, are more restrained and moody, with string players nearly slipping into an opaque impasse and only raucous reed variations preventing overall sentimentality. Affecting as an example of Gresncsó’s versatility, the session lacks the power of his more energetic releases.
Another firebrand reedist, Britain’s Paul Dunmall, known for his membership in the Mujician quartet, is involved in a similar potential conundrum on Landscapes, where playing soprano saxophone and flute he’s part of an ensemble of guitar, viola and double bass. But while some of the tracks threaten to meander into filigree, inner toughness prevents the sequences from becoming too gauzy. It helps that the associated string players are respected UK improvisers on their own, Violist Benedict Taylor has worked with Dirk Serries and Colin Webster among others; guitarist Philip Gibbs is a long-time Dunmall associate; while bassist Ashley John Long has worked with stylists from Bobby Wellins to Alex Ward and also plays chamber music. In contrast to the Gresncsó String Collective, this quartet is more inconsistent in its elaboration of the restrained lower-class title track that begins the session, but rise more resolutely to unique extrapolations on the subsequent shorter tunes. Notable is “The Expanse” where swift spiccato strokes from the violist and slithering string stabs from Gibbs enhance the sonic vitality. This energetic outpouring reaches a distinct climax on the lengthy “Many Coloured Scenes” as Taylor’s flying spiccato complements Gibbs’ downwards frails as continuously breathed saxophone trills spur the string players to kinetic swipes and strums alongside Long’s echoing crunches. Eventually string strands twist into a perfect narrative alongside Dunmall’s thick overblowing. By the concluding “Behind All Landscapes” the fissure between balladic interface and vigorous tone extensions has been resolved. Sinuous reed swells from Dunmall, pizzicato string rustles from Taylor and chugging plunks and below-the-bridge string scrapes from Gibbs are sutured into a descriptive finale.
Without the half-measure showcased on the other string-oriented discs, speed is the defining adjective on Dry, featuring Swiss saxophonist Christoph Erb, French violist Frantz Loriot and Japanese cellist Yasumune Morishige. Loriot, who has worked with Carlo Costa and Pascal Niggenkemper among many others and Erb, whose associates have included Michael Zerang and Hans Koch have been a duo since 2016. Known for his international collaborations, Morishige joined the two for this special trio album. Expanding the tremolo dynamics and fragment tone comparisons to heightened fierceness, the resulting high pitches are the closest one can get to electronic oscillations by using extended techniques on acoustic instruments. The summation, as expressed on “Planet”, the final track, mates sharpened tongue slaps and reed shrills from Erb with intermittent col legno stropping from the string players.
Before that the trio members have worked through many variations of tones and timbres as there are descriptive nouns in the track titles. Loriot’s string pressure on “Wood” for instance suggests the chirping and calling of an aviary, which evolve in counterpoint to Erb’s split tones and dissected slurs. Meanwhile, Morishige’s buzzes create a low-pitched ostinato. By mid-point the cellist’s overriding pressure consolidates all the aural space, and this density is only breached at the end when doits and flutters from the saxophonist pierce the sequence. Both cellist and violist bring in sounds from stops along the strings from spike to tuning pegs and, in Morishige’s case, bow tapping the bridge on “Sand”. Yet it’s hard lowing from the saxophonist which fully defines that track’s mercurial essence. Fully integrated into the program, the cellist adds a thickened rhythmic element to this program that Loriot and Erb may have not imagined. With timbral experimentation and bonding continuum shifting during this CD’s seven tracks, the three create an integrated trio involvement that deserves to be repeated.
Not only have each of these three ensembles come up with singular takes on string/reed integration, but they’ve created rugged individual rebuts to the sappy with-strings tradition.
Track Listing: River: 1. Dissolved in coastal vapor 2. Morning coffee maker 3. Útravalóság 4. Booth with boats 5. Cane 6. Buoy dance 7. The sailor’s compliment 8. Mishap 9. Walking on water 10. Stone dam with seagall. Fishing line 12. Ferry horn 13. Glimmering lanterns beyond shore 14. Night boatman 15. Moon bridge 16. River music 17. Slow ships 18. Diving
Personnel: River: István Grencsó (soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet, trumpet); Sándor Szabó and Roland Heidrich (acoustic and electric guitars. live processing) and Róbert Benkő (bass)
Track Listing: Landscapes: 1. Landscapes 2. The Edge 3. The Expanse 4. Patterned Landscapes 5. Many Coloured Scenes 6. Behind All Landscapes
Personnel: Landscapes: Paul Dunmall (soprano saxophone and flute); Benedict Taylor (viola); Philip Gibbs (guitar) and Ashley John Long (bass)
Track Listing: Dry: 1. Fields 2. Wind 3. Wood 4, Sand 5, Ice 6. Blood 7. Planet
Personnel: Dry: Christoph Erb (tenor and soprano saxophones); Frantz Loriot (viola) and Yasumune Morishige (cello)