Jonas Westergaard / Ronny Graupe / Christian Lillinger

March 16, 2017

The White Belt

Pirouet Records PIT3098



WhyPlayJazz RS 030

Three-legged stools are only able to stand upright because of the weight is balanced equally in thirds. Remove one prop and the entire structure can collapse. So it is with these two CDs built around Berlin-based guitarist Ronny Graupe. Sixth session by the trio of Graupe, tenor saxophonist Philipp Gropper and drummer Christian Lillinger combined as the Hyperactive Kid in 2003, Riot is a matchless display of Extrasensory perception-like tightness. Although Danish bassist Jonas Westergaard has also been playing sporadically with Graupe over the year and Lillinger is also present, The White Belt isn’t as powerful a disc. Like a plywood support replacing a stool’s oak one, the bassist doesn’t challenge the guitarist the way the saxophonist does. Plus with the latter part of the CD solo guitar, vertical strength becomes pulpy.

Atonal, but affiliated parallelism is established by the original trio as early as “Being Dark Is Easy”, Riot’s first track. With off-centre guitar strumming, subtle sandpaper-like rubs and resonating pops from the drummer and downwards saxophone splutters parameters are set up. One instrument takes the lead as if it is an adult shepherding children, while the other two act up like rival siblings, advancing attention-getting stratagem; then roles are shifted. Variants of this strategy work throughout the CD, reaching its zenith in the final and title tune. More variegated in execution, by that point individual output is simultaneously coagulated and loosened. Lillinger now outputs concentric percussion patterns, Gropper’s blows more distinctive corkscrew-like textures, and Graupe accelerates the pace as he distorts the interface. With sequences decorated, deconstructed and explored singly or in tandem, the program becomes more cohesive. Unlike three lines improvised in broken chords, all the output affiliates into a solid statement.

Other tracks that stand out include ones such as “Daup Zustand” and “Illusions”, built on careful harmonization between guitar and saxophone, but like homonyms not synonyms. The former showcases the atonality produced by skronky string snaps and horking reed slurs; the latter reaching romantic harmonies alongside taunt bowstring-like twangs and harsh mouth bubbles, underscored by rhythmic splatters and pops from Lillinger. Plus there’s a track like “Obstacle”, where constant animation is maintained by rippling effects aided by pressing a bow or stick on and among many strings at the same time.

Such ebullience would have welcomed in the home stretch of The White Belt, where the concluding tracks, unaccompanied or not, dissolve into polite finger picking and meandering riffs. Like recent outings by Nels Cline and Bill Frisell, sequences appear too slow and quiet – despite the occasional roll or pump from Lillinger – with the highpoint the guitarist’s ability to replicate a mandolin-like tone on the title tune. Like a novelist trying out various styles in order to forge his own, the Graupe-Westergaard-Lillinger trio fluidly cycles through different styles from Cool Jazz (“Kappler Drehe”) to Contemporary (“Sunset Setting”) to modified avant garde (“Szene auf dem Lande”) without apparently committing to any. Westergaard’s professionalism is always on display throughout, outputting a restrained and low-key solo on “Ignorance” and challenging the guitarist’s precise fingering with resonating versions of Graupe’s exposition on “Sunset Setting”. The tune also serves as a striking showcase for the guitarist with its blurred and slurred motif variations.

Actually recorded eight months before the other CD, The White Belt makes it evident that the six-stringer lacks the challenge he’s grown accustomed to from Gropper and Lillinger so as to produce really distinctive solos. Overall Graupe’s skill as a guitarist is confirmed. But, at this point, when comparing the two discs it’s obvious that he comes across more impressively as one-third of a triangle of sound makers than as the main point of demarcation trying to forge a singular musical identity.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Riot: 1. Being Dark Is Easy 2. Repeat! 3. Daup Zustand 4. Ignorance 5. Illusions 6. Mirror 7. Demons 8. People over Profit 9. Obstacle 10. Sale 11. Riot

Personnel: Riot: Philipp Gropper (tenor saxophone); Ronny Graupe (guitar) and Christian Lillinger (drums)

Track Listing: White: 1. Kappler Drehe 2. Szene auf dem Lande 3. Sunset Setting 4. Elfenau 5. The White Belt 6. Conduct 7. Iberia 8. Aniol

Personnel: White: Ronny Graupe (guitar); Jonas Westergaard (bass) and Christian Lillinger (drums)