Frank Gratkowski / Gerry Hemingway / Mark Helias / Herb Robertson / Wolter Wierbos / Ellery Eskelin / Kermit Driscoll / Amit Sen

December 26, 2005

The Whimbler

Clean Feed CF 040CD


Double Blues Crossing

Between The Lines BTLCHR 71202

Americana roots music has been around a lot longer than when the music business decided to give it a name about a decade ago. In reality you could probably stick into that category just about any sincere jazz, blues or country music made over the past 90 years.

Thus it shouldn’t be a surprise to realize that on parts of DOUBLE BLUES CROSSING – especially the opening six-part suite that gives the CD its name – percussionist Gerry Hemingway has written a piece that’s as rootsy as anything performed by country music pioneers the Carter Family or bluesman Sleepy John Estes. In performance it’s an updating of mountain music string band sounds – or close as you get when three-fifths of the band are Europeans.

Recorded less than 15 months later with completely different personnel except for the drummer, THE WHIMBLER shows off another aspect of Hemingway’s talent. Each of the nine compositions – the other CD has eight – is a purpose-built theme, self-sufficient in itself, yet translucent enough for interpretation and improvisation.

Those qualities are much in evident among Hemingway’s seven associates, the majority of whom have a long playing history with him. In the quartet, bassist Mark Helias has been working with the drummer for 30-odd years; and, when he isn’t in Europe, trumpeter Herb Robertson often takes the brass chair in Hemingway’s bands. A leader of his own band like the other two, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin was part of Helias’ trio and has played in Hemingway’s quartet since 1998.

Surprisingly enough on some tracks here Helias, known for his acoustic prowess, uses the electric bass. Kermit Driscoll plays both on DOUBLE BLUES CROSSING as well, though he’s most closely identified for his work on the electric axe in guitarist Bill Frisell’s trio.

Both multifaceted trombonist Wolter Wierbos from the Netherlands and German reedist Frank Gratkowski have worked with Hemingway in many other instances – when they can take time from other projects, which in Wierbos’ case includes membership in Holland’s ICP Orchestra, and in Gratkowski’s bands with Dutch pianist Michiel Braam, some of which include Robertson. New quintet member is Swedish cellist Amit Sen, who has also worked with an impressive cross-section of his local improvisers from keyboardist Sten Sandell to percussionist Kjell Nordeson.

Standing out with its elegiac, suite-like qualities, the five-part “Double Blues Crossing” expands from fiddle band lines sampled from vinyl into hearty bass work, hocketing horn riffs, sonorous triple-stopping sul tasto cello lines and focused rim tapping from Hemingway. With his sweet pitches displayed on one hand and sul ponticello near brush strokes elsewhere, Sen is an appropriate replacement for Ernst Reijseger, who played in Hemingway’s quintet for years. The Swede can harmonize with Driscoll when need be, or like the bass guitarist approximate guitar fills.

As the parts of the suite progress the horn men show their mettle. Well-traveled Gratkowski is equally adapt on clarinet, bass clarinet and alto saxophone, though most distinctive on the last. Over a cowboy music-like wobble from the bass, his rasp mixes with Wierbos’ vocalized plunger tones and the occasional percussion pings and pops. Faster and more programmatic, “It Ain’t Slippery, But It’s Wet” brings out swelling chalumeau color from the reedman as well as contrapuntal, hand-muted wah wahs from the boneman.

Earlier, the drones of bubbling trombone notes mix with trilling blue jay-like peeps from the saxophonist; his contralto slurs back Hemingway’s drum surface slaps and resonation or ringing marimba jingles. By the finale, the crescendo of double counterpoint from ethereal clarinet and blaring valve work are replaced by Wierbos’ chromatic reverberations, slurs from Gratkowski and continuous double snorting form both, as the bass and cello reintroduce the main theme and cyclic ringing on the marimba’s wooden slabs takes it out.

The percussionist’s other lines are equally impressive. Aided by such techniques as contrapuntal double stops from Sen, milk-bottle-like clattering from the marimba and showy triplets and brassy stratosphere excursions from Wierbos, they take different forms. One is a jolly stop-time composition is the tradition of those Misha Mengelberg writes for the ICP. Another evolves from almost 12-tone minimalism to Tchaikovsky-like Ur-romanticism, where funky bass finger pops, twittering clarinet trills and spherical resonation that could come from wooden temple blocks get equal time.

Finally, “Joe Cracklin Left This Before The River Got Him” is as lyrical and sweet as a cabaletta at the same time modern impulses from near-bop drumming, clarinet mouth pops and plunger trombone notes push it into modern dissonance.

Equal to DOUBLE BLUES CROSSING but with more of an improvised underpinning, THE WHIMBLER showcases four musicians at home in any needed style pre-, post- and plain-modern.

Some of the numbers find the drummer reflecting Chick Webb at one instance and Art Blakey at the next. “Kimkwella”, with Helias double stopping on electric bass, includes Township Jive call-and-response from the horns. Yet the slap bass Helias extends along “Waitin” to meet Robertson’s rubato grace notes and pitch-sliding squealing could easily have come from Pops Foster. Here and elsewhere, Hemingway’s command of blunt and perfectly targeted rebounds, flams and other excitement raisers is sure, yet so subtle that the piece is fully launched before you realize how quickly he’s ratcheted up the beat and curved into spontaneous swing.

The Blakey reference isn’t fanciful either, since there are times in the shout choruses the trumpeter and saxophonist exhibit on composition such as the title tune, that the duo comes off like an updated Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter. Melodic layering allows for 21st Century counterpoint however, and the Jazz Messengers never had a bass player like Helias who could get so much from finger taps on the strings.

Even the atmospheric, 11½ minute “Curlycue” (sic), which develops in thematic statements, is not quite contemporary and not quite nostalgic. Maybe timeless is a better description. Featuring ruffled runs from Eskelin, ululating trumpet slurs and a general folksy reflection, the theme’s stolid delicacy makes common cause with Robertson’s snickering plunger expansion, irregular vibrations from Eskelin’s snorting tenor, triple-stopping slides and taps from Helias and bangs and snaps from Hemingway.

With both CDs at such high standards, the only choice for some between them may be a predilection for certain instrumentation.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Whimbler: 1. Waitin 2. Rallier 3. The Current Underneath 4. Pumbum 5. The Whimbler 6. Spektiv 7. Curlycue 8. In The Distance 9. Kimkwella

Personnel: Whimbler: Herb Robertson (trumpet); Ellery Eskelin (tenor saxophone); Mark Helias (bass and electric bass); Gerry Hemingway (drums and marimba)

Track Listing: Double: 1. a. Buddy Luckett’s Dream By The Dry Grass Pt. 1 b. Where There Never Was Blues 2. Buddy Luckett’s Dream By The Dry Grass Pt. 2 3. Don’t Melt Away Pt. 1 & 2 4. It Ain’t Slippery But It’s Wet 5. Joe Cracklin Left This Before The River Got Him 6. Rallier 7. Night Town/Tent 8. Slowly Rising

Personnel: Double: Wolter Wierbos (trombone); Frank Gratkowski (clarinet, bass clarinet and alto saxophone); Amit Sen (cello); Kermit Driscoll (bass and electric bass); Gerry Hemingway (drums, marimba and sampler)