Damon Smith / Michael Zerang / Wolfgang Fuchs / Kent Kessler / Luc Houtkamp / Steve Bryerton / Seymour Wright

April 26, 2002

In Chicago

Entropy Stereo Recordings 007


Three October Meetings

Balance Point Acoustics BPA 003

Except for misguided xenophobes, no one still insists that the best improvised music is played by Americans in the United States. Yet while jazz and improv are now as universal as soft drinks and computers, a transformation still seems to take place when foreign musicians play with Yanks on their home turf.

Take these two masterful sessions for instance. Woodwind players Luc Houtkamp of Holland and Wolfgang Fuchs of Germany link up with a different set of bassists and percussionists in Chicago and the Bay area respectively and produce some uncharacteristically hard-edged sounds. Houtkamp, who revels in modulated alto sax interactions tempered with electronics, comes up with a paraphrase of a midwestern tough tenor showcase on his disc. While Fuchs, whose work in small groups and with his large King Übü Orchestrü often produce sounds so rarified and vaporous that they make other restrained players appear to be creating Death Metal riffs, is upfront and in your face on his three horns here.

Conceivably the reedists’ new aural posture(s) are the result of their collaborators. Houtkamp goes head-to-head with veterans, bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Michael Zerang, who have played with sax masters as powerful as German Peter Brötzmann, Swede Mats Gustaffson and fellow Windy City denizen Fred Anderson. Young Chicago percussionist Jerome Bryerton has accompanied soloists as different as British reed men John Butcher and Tony Bevan, plus pioneering free pianist Burton Greene. While Bay area bassist Damon Smith has proved his mettle with dancers, actors, and poets, fellow bassist German Peter Kowald plus other take-no-prisoners saxists like Bevan, Italian Gianni Gebbia and the late Californian Glenn Spearman.

Meandering through seven of his own or group compositions named for different Chicago musical landmarks or personages, Houtkamp often showcases an aural dictionary of multiphonics complete with echoing tongue slaps, colored hissing and speedy key pops, adding the coagulated vibrato of every bar-walking saxophonist’s nightmare. Imagine Archie Shepp’s slurred buzz playing a version of “Yakity Sax” and you’ll come up with how he sounds on some tracks. Other times Houtkamp produces heavy, unaccompanied split tones for several unrelieved minutes. Still elsewhere his dense note-sounding will be so steady that it reminds you of the electronic pulses he manipulates on other sessions or of a musical vacuum cleaner sucking every sound out of the air.

Faithful aide-de-camp Kessler, with his with a rock-steady modern pulse, generally keeps things orderly throughout. However there are times, especially on “Pershing Ballroom Jump”, where his execution appears to take a bit from Dixieland bass slappers like Pops Foster who thrived in early 20th century Chi-Town. It certainly drives an undercurrent of primitive, honky-tonk bluesiness from the saxist that reappears at intervals throughout.

Unveiling a dark, almost legit tone when playing bowed bass on “Richard Davis at DuSable” Kessler draws some irregular conga-like drum beats from Zerang and momentarily seems to interrupt the saxophonist’s all out onslaught. But maybe everyone was puzzled. Why honor Davis, the versatile Chicago bassman for his apprenticeship in legendary DuSable high school band rather than, say, his duo with Eric Dolphy?

Historical veneration seems to affect the percussionist as well. Probably the Windy City’s most experimental traps expert, Zerang has applied his sounds to dance and theatre work as well as interactions with many international improvisers. Here he does more than just add to the mix by creating ascending crescendos, and displaying prowess on miscellaneous percussion that has been a Chicago tradition since the early days of the Art Ensemble. On “New Wabash”, for example, he constructs a rare (for him) jazz-style solo à la Max Roach, individually emphasizing different parts of the kit as he faces off against Houtkamp’s breakneck, squeaking nervous riffs

If the Dutch saxophonist exposes his inner Gene Ammons here, his German, sometime boss in the King Übü Orchestrü meets his Yankee rhythm pals half way. Switching between contrabass and bass clarinets and sopranino saxophone often on the same number, his solos are certainly a lot more audible then elsewhere. At the same time, he’s so astute at pulling the other two into his particular sound world that you often can’t relate individual tones to particular instruments.

Over 12 tracks ranging from slightly more than one minute to 16 minutes plus, Fuchs goes Houtkamp’s extended techniques many times better. On the fourth track of “Meeting Three”, for instance, he ranges from producing a boar’s snort with the contrabass clarinet to the bird cries of his sopranino saxophone to reed-biting foghorn squalls from his bass clarinet. In response, bassist Smith produces a washboard style strum and Bryerton appears to be using a small hammer to produce a distinctive ping from one cymbal as he apparently scatters the rest in a pre-selected manner on the ground.

Other times as on the seventh track from “Meeting Three”, low tones predominate. Smith works his bass strings as if he was digging out a basement, while the drummer creates tiny hamster scratches and the reedist huffs out extended rolling waves of basso ostinato. On the eleventh track, which dates from “Meeting One”, higher, strident tones are the order of he day. Fuchs wiggles out piercing sounds from the sopranino, appearing so effusive that he actually appears to be playing straight time, while Smith strums his top strings for a guitar-like effect. The ninth track from “Meeting One” is more of the same with sax whinnying, further bird cries and whistles. There’s even a point where Fuchs appears to be whispering through his mouthpiece. Timed cymbal scratches that sound like chalk being yanked across the blackboard appear as the bassist’s pulse maintains the tune’s momentum. Elsewhere the three face off with parade ground rumbles from the snare, duck quacks from the horn man and a menacing bass interlude that suggests a mental picture of the old magician’s trick with the bow serving as the sword that saws au audience member in two.

With some of the miniscule tracks appear to be no more than rapid exercises in different extended techniques, the real meat of the proceedings seems to come on the two longest ones. Here each man gets to figuratively step forward, offering up his specialty. If the woodwind player has the space to spray great gouts of notes into the air followed by a unique pinched reed sound, then the bull fiddle moves upfront with a subterraneous, masculine tones and a bodybuilder’s string pulls. Finally the cymbals and drum brigade clatters into the foreground. Eventually what you hear is each trio member improvising at once, each in his separate space, but responsive to all that’s being produced around him.

If there’s a caveat that should be applied to this session, it’s that its excessive length –more than 71 minutes (!) — creates a certain sameness in timbre by the time you make it to the end. A better idea may have been to drop some of the microscopic tunes.

Besides that minor drawback, however, both these CDs are very much worth investigation as yet other examples of improvised music’s universality and the excellence of its practitioners.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Chicago: 1. Pershing Ballroom Jump 2. Jug (without dodo) 3. Flow chart 4. New Wabash 5. Who is Claude McLin? 6. Richard Davis at DuSable 7. State Street Blues

Personnel: Chicago: Luc Houtkamp (tenor saxophone); Kent Kessler (bass); Michael Zerang (drums)

Track Listing: October: 1. Meeting Three 2. Meeting Three 3. Meeting Three 4. Meeting Three 5. Meeting Three 6. Meeting Three 7. Meeting Three 8. Meeting One 9. Meeting One 10. Meeting One 11. Meeting One 12. Meeting Two

Personnel: October: Wolfgang Fuchs (sopranino saxophone, bass and contrasbass clarinets); Damon Smith(double bass ); Jerome Bryerton (percussion)