John Butcher / Claudia Ulla Binder

November 21, 2010

Under the Roof

Nuscope CD 1023

Quatre Têtes


Creative Sources CS 146 CD

Born in southern Germany, but a Zürich resident since 1986, pianist Claudia Ulla Binder has evolved her own style of improvisation. Rather formal and cold, it seems to draw heavily on her background, which includes a Masters degree in Psychology, a later degree in classical piano – and perhaps the climate of northern Europe.

However these two recent CDs, while as rigorously structured as her earlier sets, appear to mark newfound relaxation. Under the Roof for instance finds her in the company of London-based saxophonist John Butcher, whose cerebral tonal experiments haven’t stopped him from being one of the most expressive of reedists. Open to every sort of free sound, his piano partners have ranged from Steve Beresford and Chris Burn of the United Kingdom to Italy’s Alberto Braida.

Binder’s playing also seems more flexible on Figuren since she’s only one part of a quartet. As unusually constituted, as only a European combo can be, Quatre Têtes is made up of Binder and Gabriela Friedli on pianos, the trombone and alphorn of Priska Walss and Susann Wehrli’s flutes and melodica. Recorded almost two years before the Butcher CD, the instrumental combination resulted from a melding of Binder’s duo with Wehrli – who also plays with laptopist Karin Ernst – and the Friedli/Walss group. Walss has also recorded with pianist Urs Voerkel, while Friedli has been featured in bands led by saxophonists Omri Ziegele or Co Streiff.

Still a double duo, along the lines of Ornette Coleman’s double quartet or Glenn Spearman’s double trio, means that the band excels in narratives that expose both the interaction of the established twosomes which cross four dissimilar sound expressions. A tune such as “Lavtina” for example is buoyed on understated stops and strums from both pianists. Then as the flute whistles and the trombone brays, one keyboardist expels arpeggio-like connections as the other produces cascading abrasions, slapping the back frame and bottom board of the piano. As extended brass slurs meld with flute trills, one pianist’s percussive ruffs meet the other’s tremolo runs, with the piece culminating in an across-the-mountain peak tattoo from the brass player.

Staccato and rubato melodica ejaculations combine in double counterpoint displays of brass noises which sound closer to frogs than formalism on “Penelope”. As mouth instrument expressions turn forte, so does the polyphonic bowing and strumming from two sets of internal piano strings. This roughness is welcome and defining, since elsewhere Wehrli’s flighty lyricism and one pianist’s preference for legato harmonies often creates tessitura which leans towards fantasias and chamber music-styled intermezzos.

Much more exhilarating are those occasions when methodical chording on the pianists’ part and the flutist’s downy spongy tones are set aside to expose unusual timbral explorations from all concerned. As the internal piano strings clatter, stretch and rebound, and either the alphorn or trombone rumble, blat and flutter-tongue, these tunes eschew decorative tendencies to become focused, taut improvisations.

Binder evidently brought this ruggedness to the 15 improvisations she recorded with Butcher. In addition, except for rare lapses, she concentrates on the piano innards. Exposing further partials and node dislocation, she excites the wound strings with an e-bow, as well as doing more expected string stopping and strumming.

Startlingly as well, this expressive toughness on her part brings out what can be described as melodic interludes from Butcher, whose raison d’étre has been to eschew Jazz saxophone conventions. Yet on a track such as “Raincoat”, what appears in response to Binder’s upfront chording, is a legato saxophone fill that almost updates Stan Getz’s style. Soon however granular tautness coarsens the throbbing lines so that his staccato playing evolves in double counterpoint to Binder’s wide-spaced cascading chords.

Contrast this with “Truss Joint”, the track that precedes it. Here, the saxophonist’s distanced obbligatos and squeaks encompass static-like pulsing, barely there split tones, mouthpiece kisses and aggressive reed bites. These are then reflected by Binder’s downward-sliding portamento runs plus her manual rubbing of the string set. E-bow quivering is evident on pieces such as “Lofty”, but the pianist’s node extensions don’t stop there. Fleetingly advancing keyboard notes after blocking the key pads, this frequently used strategy mixes well with Butcher’s understated breaths which at points appear to redirect timbres back up the body tube.

A few languid interludes depend on Butcher blowing steadily onto the piano strings themselves, creating tremolo statements. Other pieces are staccato and stentorian, where tongue slaps and split tones join kinetic piano glissandi. Friction and broken-chord concordance characterizes “Black Martin, Female” where bird-like pressurized reed trills twitter as additional resistance is engendered by the piano’s ricocheting string thumps. Meanwhile, a piece such as “Kestrel” demonstrates how note cascades from the thickly voiced piano keys become one with bent notes that result from continuous reed trilling.

Revealing tones that range from mah-jongg-piece-like clanks to etude-like cadences plus timbres from circular breathing to tongue and lip stops, the melds or dislocations add up to a meeting that is melismatic or singular at different points. And that happens whether the sounds are outlined s speedily, slowly, vociferously or tranquilly.

At a higher level of evolution than the quartet session, Under the Roof showcases two master instrumental explorers at top form. Quatre Têtes may not have reached that level. But considering the band members have had an additional four years to put their heads together since the CD was recorded, it’s possible their sound has become more sophisticated since Figuren.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Under: 1. Lofty 2. Troves 3. Umbrella 4. Coffer 5. Black Martin, Female 6. Black Martin, Male 7. Truss Joint 8. Raincoat 9. Cantilever 10. Fledgling 11. Topee 12. Housemice 13.Kestrel 14.Leak 15.Skylight

Personnel: Under: John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones) and Claudia Ulla Binder (piano)

Track Listing: Figuren: 1. Beauty’s Biest 2. Flamingo 3. Lavtina 4. Läufer und Turm 5. Penelope 6. Myriapoda 7. Voyageurs 8. Waiting for Cary Grant 9. Knopf und Knopfloch 10. Anaphora

Personnel: Figuren: Priska Walss (trombone and alphorn); Susann Wehrli (flutes and melodica) and Claudia Ulla Binder and Gabriela Friedli (pianos)