Hans Lüdemann featuring Majid Berkas

January 17, 2023

On the Edges 1
BMC CD 292

A Muted Reality
Clean Feed CF 600 CD

Often it’s easy to see why small big bands of eight or nine players are preferred by many innovative musicians. Not only does the configuration give them access to a wider palate of textural colors, but navigating the arrangements can move the ensemble in varied directions.

Take these established ensembles as examples. German pianist Hans Lüdemann sees his Trans Europe Express (TEE) as a vehicle for his compositions and arrangements. Reflecting the Jazz-influenced internationalism that goes beyond the backgrounds of his German and French musicians, On the Edges 1 is a cross-cultural undertaking which in this case integrates the sounds of the octet with the playing and singing of Moroccan Majid Bekkas. Decidedly less precise, Swedish alto saxophonist Martin Küchen looks on his Angles octet as an improvisation laboratory, with his compositions arranged and shaped by the exigences of his Scandinavia octet.

On the Edges 1 is bookended by three animated selections at the top which mix African inflections and European dance-like rhythm created by Lüdemann and Bekkas with the wispy solemnity of EE saxophonist Alexandra Grimal’s “Ashura” whose dreamy harmonies pierced by percussion crunches conclude the disc. But it’s the pianist’s five-part eponymous composition that dominates the CD. During the trio of introductory tunes, motifs from Arab-Gnawa tradition represented by Bekkas’ thick oud plucks and melismatic chanting are winnowed by Jazz conceptions including steadying ruffs from drummer Dejan Terzic, rushing timbres from the pianist, vamping broken octave harmonies from the reeds of Grimal and Silke Eberhard and, most of all, the echoing plunger extensions of trombonist Yves Robert, sometimes as vocalized as Bekkas’ voice. Neither excessively ethnic or exotic, the expressions are often more prestissimo and staccato than expected from Maghrebian music. “Sahara Variations”, a Bekkas-Lüdemann collaboration approaches a rondo, with the layered parts climaxing with contrapuntal chords between Roberts’ portamento growls and the rubs and extensions from the massed strings which involve Régis Huby’s violin, Ronny Graupe’s guitar and Sébastien Boisseau’s bass.

“On the Edges 1” is a fluid multi-sectional work both foot tapping and fundamental. Based on sectional and individual pairings, bright horn portamento evolve to orchestral riffs as Bekkas’ and Graupe’s strokes define the exposition. When the piano line evolves from formal to free form, it’s Huby’s shrills which make the biggest impression. United during the climactic “On the Edges 1 part V”, thumping percussion underlines first a Maghreb-like soprano saxophone line that opens up into contrasting foregrounds with plunger tones pushed from the trombone and a concentrated display of violin riffs that wrap hoedown stops and harmonized glissandi. Connected, the package speeds up as the track evolves. Besides contrasting reed split tones and fiddle slides, Lüdemann’s comping introduces a full band recap of the main theme until repeated vamps reach a polyphonic stop-time climax. “Zwickmühlen (Seesaw)” which follows, is a coda of sorts where harmonized riffs introduce a lyrical theme that ranges across the sound field adding carefully arranged high-pitched riffs cemented with piano comping.

Carefully arranged and harmonized are not the first adjectives thought of when desc4ribing A Muted Reality; they may be the last. Its three tracks are more like a roller coaster ride with dissonance built into the thrills, especially when the lopping ruckus reaches the highest points. “The Hidden Balcony” and the title track evolve pretty much the same way. “A Muted Reality” starts off slowly with Alexander Zethson’s thumping piano chords leading the rest of the group to riff behind a do-si-do between trumpeter Magnus Broo’s bent note shakes and the unvarying buzz from Goran Kajfes’ trumpet attached to a woodwinds pedal sound system. The track finally takes shape just before the half-way mark as Küchen explodes with split tone and discordant bites joined by fragmenting multiphonics from the other horns as keyboard comping hardens and Konrad Agnas’ drums smacks become more regularized. Until the piece climaxes with a crescendo of full band riffs, the extended drone is segmented with a patina of Mattias Ståhl’s vibraphone pops and triplet smears from the three brass players. The three are even more prominent on “The Hidden Balcony” with Broo creating mariachi-like flourishes that ascend to brief heraldic screams as trombonist Mats Äleklint’s warm plunger exhibition balances the excess that fragment into sound atoms. Meanwhile drums, piano and Johan Berthling’s measured bass slaps set up a groove with the piece climaxing in a contrapuntal prestissimo brass scream. Perhaps facetiously, “Fkk Down, Fkk Off”, the final selection, turns all that precedes it upside down with an almost note-perfect recreation of 1940s big band swing, Featuring constantly returning full band riffs, the rhythm is torqued with boogie-woogie piano vamps, broken chord bent notes from the brass section and six-person handclapping on the beat. Following a pseudo-Chick Webb drum showcase and some saxophone blats, the piece is summed up with a ferocious stop-time sequence.

With all the colors available from integrated arrangements and the freedom to extend solos, Lüdemann and Küchen make excellent use of their little big bands,

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Edges: 1. Lamjarred 2. Sahara Variations 3. Yaya 4. On the Edges 1 part I. 5. On the Edges 1 part II. 6. On the Edges 1 part III. 7. On the Edges 1 part IV. 8. On the Edges 1 part V. 9. Zwickmühlen (Seesaw) 10. Ashura

Personnel: Edges: Yves Robert (trombone); Alexandra Grimal (soprano, tenor saxophones); Silke Eberhard (alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet); Hans Lüdemann (piano, virtual piano); Régis Huby (violin); Ronny Graupe (guitar); Sébastien Boisseau (bass); Dejan Terzic (drums, percussion); Majid Bekkas (oud, guembri, voice)

Track Listing: Muted: 1. A Muted Reality 2. The Hidden Balcony 3. Fkk Down, Fkk Off

Personnel: Muted: Magnus Broo (trumpet: Goran Kajfes (trumpet, woodwinds pedal sound system); Mats Äleklint (trombone, sousaphone); Martin Küchen (alto saxophone); Alexander Zethson (piano, synthesizer); Mattias Ståhl (vibraphone); Johan Berthling (bass); Konrad Agnas (drums); Zethson, Ståhl, Agnas, Küchen, Äleklin, Kajfes (handclap, percussion)