Cortex

Legal Tender
Clean Feed CF 559 CD

Wooley/Mockũnas/Guy/Gotesmanas

NOX

NoBusiness NBLP 140

Orientation of We

Emergence

Off OCD 046

Preferred by sound explorers ranging from Gerry Mulligan to Ornette Coleman, the limitations of a combo consisting of only brass, reeds, bass and drums are easily overcome due to players’ skills. Each quartet here demonstrates that. But unlike many earlier configurations only one band is a working group.

That’s Norway’s Cortex with trumpeter Thomas Johansson, saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts, bassist Ola Høyer and drummer Gard Nilssen, which has been a unit since 2007 even as members also worked in other groups like the PNL Large Unit, Zanussi 5 and Honest John. Meanwhile the fine work exhibited on Emergence results from the mutual chemistry generated when the four New York-based musicians jammed freely. The group is trumpeter Michael Irwin, who has also worked with Federico Ughi; drummer Joe Hertenstein also part of the Core trio, plus bassist Max Johnson and tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, who lead their own ensembles. NOX on the other hand is the prototypical all-star festival matchup. It links American trumpeter Nate Wooley and British bassist Barry Guy who play with many members of the international Free Music community and two Lithuanian stylists: multi-reedist Liudas Mockūnas who is also internationally prominent, as well as leading local bands, some of which have featured percussionist Arkadijus Gotesmanas.

Perhaps one reason for the raucous affinity exhibited during Legal Tender is that it was Nilssen’s swan song with Cortex. Not that there is any lessening of the echoing rumbles or pummeling ruffs he brings to the disc that maintain a rhythmic groove. Soloing, he’s expressive on “GTM”, where he breaks up the stop-time patterns with cow bell clangs and snare ruffs as the fluid theme is challenged by Alberts’ alto saxophone slurs and Johansson’s upper-range flutter tonguing. The trumpeter, who composed six of the seven tracks, gives each player freedom, such as on “Anthem for the Uneasy” which moves from, and ends with, a harmonized head. Alberts’ tenor sax scoops become a combination of snarls and smoothness on “Standby”. Yet with a walking bass line and drum rumbles, later altissimo screeches are kept consistent even as he wonders into unexpected reed configurations. “10-4” was composed by Høyer, whose faultless pulse is heard clearly throughout the disc. Ironically it’s a feature for the trumpeter who works his way from strained body-tube breaths and colored air to bent note harmony to finally connect the graceful melody with plunger tones affiliated with reed peeps and tongue slides. Johansson returns the favor on “Blue Gromka”, where a slippery woody bass solo sets up the tune. However it’s completed by sweeping group textures from press rolls, compounded plunger slithers from the trumpeter and shrill peeps from the saxophonist.

As the veteran improviser, Guy is also a strong presence on NOX. But close cooperation negate any star-and-acolytes ranking. By the time the first track is completed the pattern has been set connecting pressurized string stops, high-pitched trumpet shakes, drum spanks and reed strategies from Mockūnas involving shakes, split tones and smears. A calming exposition characterizes “Multa Nox”, which is built up from drum shuffles, adroit zither-like string strops, with harmonized muted brass spills and contrabass clarinet growls. Rugged sul tasto rubs, cymbal clashes and intermittent reed split tones subsequently fragment the theme bringing energetic brass plunger tones and more low-pitched reed snarks forward as steady bass strokes cement the narrative. Finally “Multa Lux” gives each player space as Wooley puffs out “Pop Goes the Weasel” variants, Mockūnas’ saxophone squeaks and shrieks and bass drum thumps and rapid pistol-shot beats give way to Guy’s sul tasto turns. His string rubbing is the only constant as the narrative fragments still more, finally climaxing with a cowbell and Mylar spanking showpiece for the drummer and mariachi-like rhythmic splatters from trumpeter. Staccato and allegretto the accelerating tune jumps to an exhilarating finish.

The same balance exists with Orientation of We as the four hit the ground running with “Are You on Too” filled with saxophone squeaks, a brassy obbligato, a walking bass line and hard drum smacks. Here, as elsewhere, Lewis’ strength is emphasized as he decorates Tanesque theme elaborations with hoarse screams and split tones. Concurrently as the subsequent “Principle of Differentiation” demonstrates, he’s capable of vibrating lighter tones alongside capillary buzzes from Irwin to keep the narrative horizontal as its broken up by Hertenstein’s hoof beat-like prods. Eventually an exquisite bowed bass line mixes with affable trumpet slides to create an orotund conclusion. A timed cymbal clash prevents the last tune from becoming too Arcadian and it’s this lean towards modernism that abounds on other tracks. Most noticeably this happens on the concluding vivace “Extra Heavy”. Invested with stop-time elaborations, it includes doits and echoes from both horns that repeatedly intersect and break apart as Johnson’s slapping undercurrent preserves coherence. Eventually plunger brass and reed slides take out the tune on high-pitched notes. Spiccato string vibrations, and drum rolls preserve the ambulatory nature of the other tunes, which return to buzzing intensity in the few instances that motifs become moderato or slow and stately. With timbral expression and rock-solid percussiveness frequently evoked, Emergence remains an instance of profound contemporary sounds with just enough experimentation to keep things lively. And that definition could be expanded to describe all the quartet sessions here.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Legal: 1. Anthem for the Uneasy 2. Standby 3. GTM 4. I-95 5. 10-4 6. Blue Gromka 7. Loose Blues

Personnel: Legal: Thomas Johansson (trumpet); Kristoffer Berre Alberts (alto and tenor saxophones); Ola Høyer (bass) and Gard Nilssen (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: NOX: 1. Multa Dies 2. Multa Nox 3. Multa Lux

Personnel: NOX: Nate Wooley (trumpet); Liudas Mockūnas (contrabass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones): Barry Guy (bass) and Arkadijus Gotesmanas (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Emergence: 1. Are You on Too 2. Principle of Differentiation 3. Emergence 4. Murmurs 5. Again 6. Out of Sight 7. Extra Heavy

Personnel: Emergence: Michael Irwin (trumpet); James Brandon Lewis (tenor saxophone); Max Johnson (bass) and Joe Hertenstein (drums)