Gerry Hemingway / Lucas Niggli / Michel Wintsch / Franziska Baumann

March 29, 2000

Road Movie (Between The Lines btl 002/EFA 10172-2)

Swiss composer/pianist Michel Wintsch writes for theatre, opera, radio and film as well as working as a jazzman. Thus it seems that this album — which is a literal record of a performance in Berlin in 1998 — owes as much to theatrical “program music” as it does to freer improvisation.

Commissioned by a German bank, this session, while certainly professional, and at times even affecting, often sounds more like the results of a grant application than a unified piece of music. Are the so-called “serious” flourishes in the string writing throughout and boffo rock-style finale there to show his backers just how much more versatile he is than the average jazz pianist, you wonder? Even the way the suite is structured shouts “showcase” rather than expression: There are 12 tunes here on a CD that runs less than 52 minutes, and eight of those are less than four minutes long. ROAD MOVIE is even described as “a movie soundtrack for 10 leading roles” in the notes, causing you to wonder about extra-musical considerations.

Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with commissions — any money that goes to creative musicians is a bonus. It’s just that a certain bloodless “professionalism” appears to have affected this soundtrack. It becomes apparent as early as the second track, “Night Train”, where the string section expectedly mimics the sound of an accelerating locomotive in the background.

Elsewhere you get a hint of repetitive trance music on “Italik Part 2”; some wordless vocalizing from Baumann on “Play Time” that morphs into throat shredding speaking-in-tongues on “Hiver part 2”; and some oh-so-cool jazz pianisms from the composer himself on “Natalia”. Later Schütz does his usual heavy-metal-cello freak out routine on “Trash Road”, complete with bombastic, arena-filling drumming from the usually restrained Hemingway — unless it’s Niggli.

The drummer sounds more like his inventive self on other tracks and for restraint, if nothing else, he and muted trumpeter Schärli are the most consistent members of the crew on this journey.

Judging from the rapturous audience applause that closes the disc, that group and the banker backers were well pleased by this particular road trip. However something that can appear unique in a live setting may, under laser scrutiny, reveal itself as a cut-and-paste job of pretty melodies.

All in all ROAD MOVIE makes for agreeable background sounds, perfect for a short road trip. But Wintsch should be capable of much more. Let him write a longer, more unified composition that doesn’t have shorter melodies lobbed off it like so many cheese slices. Perhaps that road will be the right one for him.

-Ken Waxman

Tracks: 1. Postludique 2. Night Train 3. Re-Pyrrect 4. Play Time 5. Italik part 1 6. Italik part 2 7. Hiver part 1 8. Hiver part 2 9. Natalia 10. Chords 11. Trash Road 12. Le chien du héro*

Peter Schärli* (trumpet); Jean-Jacques Pendretti (trombone); Franziska Baumann (flute, vocals); Nathalie Saudan, Daniel Beltraminelli (violins); Michel Wintsch (piano); Jean-Philippe Zwahlen (guitar); Martin Schütz* (cello); Lucas Niggli, Gerry Hemingway (drums)