James Choice Orchestra

November 25, 2008

Live at Musik Triennale
Leo CD LR 513

Bik Bent Braam

Although saxophonist/clarinettist Frank Gratkowski and tubaist Carl Ludwig Hübsch are each an integral part of both these innovative, large ensemble sessions, the CDs couldn’t be more divergent. Extremen features the two-Köln-based players as part of Dutch pianist Michel Braam’s 13-piece Bik Bent Braam ensemble in concert playing 12 of the pianist’s compositions. Although the tunes are also orchestrated, using a combination of written and verbal cues plus hand signals and gestures, band members improvise both musically and physically. They can alter, re-direct and refocus the order and duration of the pieces, work out different harmonies and solo choices, plus unexpectedly introduce improvised material.

Live at Musik Triennale Köln stands in sharp contrast to the other CD for a variety of reasons. For a start, there is no James Choice – it’s a jokey group identifier for the ensemble – in addition the number of orchestra members is almost double that of Bik Bent Braam. Gratkowski and Hübsch are two of the band’s leader/composers – saxophonists Norbert Stein and Matthias Schubert are the others – and in its musical game plan the orchestra relies on a combination of graphical scores, conventional notation and cues. The compositions mix New music, Free Jazz and improvised music.

Sluicing, sliding and splaying, the cross timbres exposed in Bik Bent Braam compositions vary in speed and intensity depending on whether one or more band members is in the spotlight. Within the structures, massed tutti that resemble symphonic overtures often succeed jazzy rhythm section bounces; or individual extended techniques – such as Hübsch pushing colored air through his horn – brush up against such common big band tropes as call-and-response choruses or backing riffs. Additional colors available from the contrabass clarinets of Peter van Bergen and Gratkowski, Jan Willem van der Han’s bassoon, Peter Haez’s euphonium and Angelo Verploegen’s piccolo trumpet are smeared across the compositional canvas, shading certain sections, or unpredictably – and uniquely – highlighting specific passages.

“Angelox” for instance is a cued composition that initially compresses wood scratches from drummer Michael Vatcher and Braam’s music-box-like keyboard tinkling until the result evolves into a waltz, backing it are tightly coiled, unison horn vamp that wouldn’t have been out of place in Woody Herman’s Herd. This variant is further surmounted by buttery Johnny Hodges-like alto work plus the odd splutter from low-pitched brass. In contrast, “Michaelx” threads its inventions among dark reed and brass lines, that are contrasted with Verploegen’s piccolo trumpet runs and clattering percussion smacks. By the climax, plunger brass slurs face off against faux Ragtime syncopation from the pianist plus cuckoo-clock repetitions and police whistle shrills from the horns.

“Franxs” on the other hand, is a Mingus-style blues that borrows similar section- voicing and gospel-like piano from the American bassist/composer. That is until the piece is transformed into a cheery, secular dance led by reedists van Beren and Frans Vermerssen. Goosing the Latinesque rhythms with mariachi-styled figures from strong drum whacks and cross pulsed piano lines, the performance mutates to such an extent that “Franxs” begin to resemble the soundtrack to a steamy 1950s film noir – only to conclude with a tongue-slapping baritone saxophone solo and a final alto saxophone chortle.

Performance of these and other tracks are open enough to give sufficient prominence to most band members’ talents. These include particular showcases for Wilbert de Joode, who is skilful enough to handle muscular walking, thick sul tasto wood resonation and squeaking sul ponticello runs with the same aplomb. Other highlights include trombonist Wolter Wierbos’ Dixieland-styled bell fanning or staccato bursts of slide speed; and alto saxophonist Bart van der Putten’s so-called balladic work, which finds him contorting his horn so that its output pays homage to Earl Bostic vibrating “Harlem Nocturne” at one point and Evan Parker circular breathing at another.

On the evidence here however, the 23 members of the James Choice’s orchestra are more comfortable with the techniques of Parker and the experimenters than Bostic and the popularizers, despite backgrounds that encompass rock and world music as well as so-called classical, jazz and free music. Then again, since the focus at this Musik Triennale Köln was composer Luciano Berio as well as improvisation, each of the compositions preserved was created to relate to the Italian composer’s oeuvre.

Gratkowski’s “”Pyrsos” and Hübsch’s “Trivial Tribute to L. B.”, for instance, pick up on certain aspects of the older composer’s style, while admittedly filtering his ideas through the colander that is improvised music. Interestingly enough both tunes make extensive use of the voices of Barbara Schachtner and Isis Krüger, with one frequently singing and the other speechifying.

“Trivial Tribute …”, for instance, is introduced by a vocal passage as formally enunciated as it would be in a language-lab instruction tape, while massed, reverberating chords, wider and less contextualized than in Berio’s scores, move to suggest the formal variations that will follow – until the overall sound slims down to random reed squeaks and squeals. Introducing an element of structuralism, the orchestral passages break down gradually, consecutively appending timbres that are in turn minimalist, staccato or atonal. One human voice then punctuates the unfolding sound with angry non-verbal interjections.

Meanwhile Matthias Mainz’s trumpet lines and Michael Heupel’s flute weave opposing lower-pitched and higher-pitched tones around the vocal. Combining, separating and brushing against sonic impulses, intentions and interactions, singular solos alternate with choir-like instrumental group sounds. Pitchsliding and fracturing notes, Heupel duets with Gratkowski; still later a bass clarinet and Tom Lorenz’s chiming vibes signal another tonal shift. Overlapping layering references Schoenberg-like Klangfarbenmelodie, as outbursts of semi-operatic singing in what sounds like English, Italian and German are buttressed by a thick, undifferentiated orchestral tone that eventually fades diminuendo, punctuated by a conclusive “yah” from one vocalist.

Almost 22 minutes long “Pyrsos”, like Hübsch’s piece, is partially cued and partially notated, deceptively low-pitched and built in sections around a six-tone row and six permutations. Technicalities aside, the composition’s power derives from more balancing of single and group expression. Early on, echoing runs from Udo Moll’s trumpet are superseded by hectic, hocketing brass fanfares and subterranean burbling from the reeds. Benjamin Weidkamp’s slithery clarinet timbres play a role similar to Moll’s in that trumpet’s section, with what seems to be nonsense syllables courtesy of the vocalists studding the otherwise all-instrumental passages.

Lumbering pedal-point horn puffs later underlie treble sequence division as lower-pitched trombones, tubas and bass clarinets move in broken-octave lockstep, at the same time as higher-pitched instruments make their points with pointillist sound daubs. A vocal passage divided between lyric soprano asides from one singer and throat, cheek and lip intonation from the other, presages further verbal recitation accompanied by harsh piano chords, then with contrapuntal and irregular horn slurs seasoned with discordant dual tuba twists. Undulating through demonstrations of flute flutters, vibes abrasions, cross-handed popping piano chords from Paolo Alvares and sudden diaphragm vibrations from the saxes, the pressurized crescendo eventually deflates and concluded with modulated sound undulations.

Schubert’s much shorter “Autoportrait” and Stein’s “Six Chapters in a Rambling Life” are both slighter compositions, with the former more notable. It suggest a form midway between a capriccio and a concerto, with the ensemble conceptualizing the interlude utilizing bel canto vocalizing, individual instrument expressions and significant silences.

Expression of either one person’s vision or a quartet of interpreters’ acknowledgements, each of these European CDs is enjoyable on its own terms no matter the listeners’ sonic predilections. That neither could ever be confused for the other, confirms the currents of creativity blowing around the continent.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Extremen: 1. Frankx 2. Michielx 3. Wollox 4. Michaelx 5. Puttex 6. Angelox 7. Wilx 8. Erix 9. Franxs 10. Haeks 11. Pjax 12. JWX

Personnel: Extremen: Eric Boeren (cornet); Angelo Verploegen (trumpet); Wolter Wierbos (trombone); Peter Haex (euphonium), Carl Ludwig Hübsch (tuba); Frank Gratkowski (alto saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet); Jan Willem van der Ham (alto saxophone and bassoon), Bart van der Putten (alto saxophone and clarinet), Frans Vermeerssen (tenor and baritone saxophones): Peter van Bergen (tenor saxophone clarinet and bass clarinet); Michiel Braam (piano); Wilbert de Joode (bass) and Michael Vatcher (drums)

Track Listing: Live: 1. Autoportrait 2.- 3. Pyrsos 4.-5. Six Chapters in a Rambling Life 6.-9. Trivial Tribute to L.B.

Personnel: Live: Matthias Mainz and Udo Moll (trumpets); Nicolao Valiensi (trombone); Carl Ludwig Hübsch and Melvyn Poore (tubas); Michael Heupel (flute); Annette Maye and Benjamin Weidkamp (clarinets); Frank Gratkowski (alto saxophone and contrabass clarinet); Matthias Schubert and Norbert Stein (tenor saxophone); Niels Klein (tenor saxophone and clarinet); Radek Stawarz (violin); Paolo Alvares (piano); Thomas Lehn (synthesizer); Scott Fields (guitar); Tom Lorenz (vibraphone); Sue Schlotte (cello); Sebastian Gramss and Dieter Manderscheid (bass); Joe Hertenstein (drums) and Barbara Schachtner and Isis Krüger (voices)