John Hébert / Taylor Ho Bynum / Gerald Cleaver

May 31, 2011

Book of Three

RogueArt Rog-0029

Joe Hertenstein/Pascal Niggenkemper/Thomas Heberer


Clean Feed CF 205 CD

Unusual in composition, an improvising trio made up of double bass, drums and a brass instrument usually has a harder time balancing its sonics than when the third instrument is piano, say, or saxophone. It’s a tribute to each of these formations that the end results are of such high-quality, although the Book of Three CD is low-key and atmospheric, while HNH is bright and lively.

While both bands are New York-based, HNH is 100 per cent German, while Bynum, Hébert and Cleaver are Americans. In fact, while veteran trumpeter Thomas Heberer, who regularly works with the Berlin Contemporary Jazz and the ICP orchestras, was a member of the Köln-based James Chance Orchestra with drummer Joe Hertenstein, the triple-initial combo didn’t jell until the two hooked up again in Manhattan and added a third expat, bassist Pascal Niggenkemper, who plays in another band with drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Almost all the compositions are from one or the other H however.

Meanwhile Taylor Ho Bynum – who plays cornet, flugelhorn, bass trumpet and trumpbone here – bassist John Hébert and drummer Gerald Cleaver are some of the busiest musicians on the New York scene, working with the likes of reedman Anthony Braxton and bassist William Parker as well as leading their own bands. This trio configuration apparently impressed them for particular reasons. Judging from the voicing, it appears that an opportunity to avoid the stentorian was one attraction. The drummer does manage to get in some backbeat whacks and the bassist does his share of walking, but pulsing ruffs and echoes from Clever plus Hébert’s string stretching and fondling predominate.

The wild card here, Bynum maintains the understated chromatic interface, but breaks up his lyrical runs and muted grace notes with a variety of extended techniques. At one point he matches the bassist’s double-stopping emphasis with affiliated plunger tones and half-swallowed tongue fluttering. On the other hand, on “How Low” the cornetist’s part evolves to repeated whiny slurs, buzzes and tremolo back-of-throat cries, as Hébert alternates col legno and sul tasto strokes and the drummer spends more time dabbing, stroking and shaking parts of his kit than whacking any of them.

Most tunes are group (instant) compositions, with a couple sporting punning titles mockingly converse to the members’ actual playing efforts – “Digging for Clams”, for instance or “Meat Cleaver”. “Air Bear”, another group effort, is more illustrative of the trio’s inside/outside conceptions however. Indolently paced, with Cleaver’s cymbal smacks and time-keeping ruffs and rattles, the form is subverted by the bassist’s discordant low-pitched scrubs and Bynum’s extended mouthpiece oscillations that suggest dog whistles. The ending is equal parts shuffles and hand bounces from the drummer; higher-pitched bass string plucks and brass tones that are simultaneously rough and rococo.

If the measured pacing of Book of Three sometimes threatens to tumble from languid to lethargic, then there’s no trace of listlessness on the other CD. Straight-ahead aggression and swing are evident throughout. This is apparent whether the composition is “Tolliver Toll”, Heberer’s rhythmically appropriate tune honoring Freebop trumpeter Charles Tolliver, or craftily expressive like the moderato lows from Heberer’s quarter-tone trumpet on Hertenstein’s suggestive “Screw the Pendulum”.

On the latter tune, the brass man’s specially constructed instrument allows him to smear slippery textures as if he was playing a reed instrument. He asserts the horn’s brassiness when he buzzes and razzes in the piece’s final variant, while throughout the drummer rolls and shuffles and the bassist strokes his strings with powerful motions. On the Tolliver salute, the trumpeter’s braying and speech-inflected tones are appropriately agitated, while Hertenstein showcases a stick-popping solo filled with press rolls, and Niggenkemper’s distended pulse is reminiscent of Jimmy Garrison playing “A Love Supreme”. A winnowing descending tongue slur that completes “Paul’s Age”, which Hertenstein based on the fragment of a Hindemith melody, follows the trumpeter’s reconstitution of the theme. With Heberer’s interpretation encompassing peaks and valleys that go from shrill and staccato to this side of mellow, the narrative fits tongue-and-groove alongside the bassist’s arpeggios and the drummer’s rolls, pops and clatters.

More generic to the trio’s narrative is Heberer’s “Doin’ the Do”. Both tonic and discordant the piece allows the trumpeter to run through strategies that alternately reflect either approach. Raucous triplets following pressurized air forced through the horn’s body tube is one variant, linked to plucked guitar-like chords and sul tasto slides from Niggenkemper. Elsewhere, half-valve effects slurring to multiphonics precedes a return to the main, smoothly paced theme, with equivalent steadying pulses arriving from the bassist, matched with the drummer’s drags, bounces and rebounds.

If you want stimulation obvious and in-your-face than the pulsating swing of HNH is the preferred disc. If you’ll settle for an enervated approach which may mask more musical profundity, then Book of Three investigation may be in order. Both trios appear to have efficiently overcome the perceived weaknesses supposedly associated with brass-bass-drum trio sessions.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Book: 1. White Birch 2. Digging for Clams 3. Death Star 4. Sevens First Edition 5. Meat Cleaver 6. Binumbed 7. Air Bear 8. Sevens Second Edition 9. How Low

Personnel: Book: Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn, bass trumpet and trumpbone); John Hébert (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: HNH: 1. Screw the Pendulum 2. Glulan 3. Paul’s Age 4. Doin’ the Do 5. Prelude and Tomorrow’s Problem 6. Lucretia’s Legacy/Do I Remember Wrong 7. The Tolliver Toll

Personnel: HNH: Thomas Heberer (quarter-tone trumpet); Pascal Niggenkemper (bass) and Joe Hertenstein (drums)