Lotz of Music

February 28, 2020

Live at JazzCase

The Pearls
Intakt CD 331

Dealing with the now century old Jazz tradition poses interesting challenges for contemporary musicians. Ignoring mere imitation, knowing players strive to inject their own notions when interpreting classic fare. These sessions reflect contrasting methods of dealing with the situation, both of which have advantages and deficiencies.
Taking on the sizeable legacy of American multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1935-1977) is the task facing the mostly Dutch Reeds & Deeds sextet. Instructively though it takes three saxophonists – Frans Vermeerssen and American Alex Coke who were both in the Willem Breuker Kollektief and Bo van de Graaf, who leads the Fellini-esque I Compani – to play the reed parts Kirk did on his own, simultaneously blowing his three horns. The rhythm section is well-prepared as well with pianist Michiel Braam, who leads many of his own bands, bassist Arjen Gorter, another former Kollektief member and drummer Makki van Engelen on board.

A classic avatar, whose performances mixed together technical innovations, rock-solid swing, bawdy humor and a sentimental streak, Kirk’s individuality was unmatched. His music’s last two attributes are the hardest to apply and the sextet’s attempts are the weakest party of this live disc. Coke’s flute fluttering may be as delicate and episodic as Kirk’s originals, but it lacks the sardonic lift, often other-directed and relying on tremolo piano colors to toughen its base. As well “Bright Moments”, the one track where band members verbalize the title phrase à la Kirk, is gratuitous, purely instrumental work is superior.

Kirk’s skill in simultaneously manipulating tenor saxophone, manzella and stritch is still unmatched, but throughout the three saxophonists are able to replicate the excitement in their own fashions. Texas-native Cole, for instance pulls out all the stops in a tough tenor workout on the final “Vertigo Ro”, with his dense exposition making it seem as if he’ll soon burst through the saxophone’s metal body as well as splinter his reed. At the same time, Braam’s two-handed dynamic splashes and swirls plus pedal rumble cements the tune’s Blues base with van Engelen’s rim shots and cymbal slaps providing the perfect ending. Meanwhile Vermeerssen and van de Graaf, who are more familiar with Haarlem than Harlem, work in the Blues lineage as well. Playing up the sanctified Mingus-like influence for all its worth via Gorter’s hard thumping, “Gifts and Messages” stop-time emphasis is further intensified by Vermeerssen’s emotional reed bites and vamps from the other horns. Moving among soprano and alto saxophones on tracks like “Three for the Festival” and “A Laugh for Rory”, van de Graaf’s distinctive, but thin output adds the proper high-pitched cascades to the narratives, with Braam alternating between downwards keyboard pummels and upwards glissandi as well as van Engelen’s kettle-drum-like smashes on the former adding to its power.

But perhaps the best demonstration of how Reeds & Deeds have approximated part of Kirk’s work occurs on “Silverization”. With a chunky shuffle beat from the drummer and echoing piano plinks Coke and Vermeerssen both playing tenor, elaborate in turn the theme, with scads of passionate snorts and splintering notes, finally clearing out of the way for a climatic pre-modern-styled drum solo with rim shots, press rolls and cymbal claps. Here and elsewhere it’s clear that the sextet members really honor Kirk by applying their own concepts to his musical legacy.

American saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, Swiss bassist Christian Weber and German drummer Michael Griener have set themselves a more ambitious task, alternating brief versions of Jazz classics with extended improvisations. While the program attains its bifurcated aim in the main, disconnect between the lively classic tunes and the weightier improvisations remain. Musicians as different as Co Streiff, Michael Woolny, Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky,

Gerry Hemingway and Andrea Parkins have been associated with one or another of the trio members giving them glimpses in all varieties of instrumental sounds. But their collective comfort zone appears to reside with lengthier, more extended performances. Group instant compositions such as “La Fée Verte” and “Black Drop” sound most comfortable under their fingers. On the first tune for example, resounding slaps from the drummer seconded by bouncy string scrubs create a contrapuntal base on which the saxophonist’s lightly breathed slurs and hovering arabesques hover. With enough space left for Eskelin to minutely examine every aspect of the theme, the three come together for expressive lower-pitched vibrations at the end. More sonically dappled than pure black, “Black Drop” is muted rather than opaque. Distant trills and emotional vibrations from the saxophonist are prodded by Weber’s power pumps to more aggressive smears that attain high enough pitches to intersect with the bassist’s upfront strumming before fading away.

Among the standards only the Jelly Roll Morton composed title track, a concentrated foot- tapper stands out. The trio’s theme development features Griener applying enough snaps and slaps to approximate a Jo Jones-like beat as Eskelin moves through the narrative with a softer, lighter-toned Lester Young-like vibrato. There are similar Young-like variations on “Jive at Five” a song that Young actually recorded with Count Basie, but this version is a little too polite, lacking needed verve and oomph. Otherwise odd corkscrew reed trills and repetitions suggest that the trio shouldn’t attempt to modernize ragtime.

One can’t fault Eskelin, Weber and Griener for trying to create new-old melds more original than Reeds & Deeds’ straightforward reinterpretations. But at least this time out it seems that confining themselves to contemporary cerebral improvisations would have been more effective.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live: 1. A Laugh for Rory 2. Gifts and Messages 3. Three for the Festival 4. Steppin’ into Beauty 5. Silverization 6. The Inflated Tear 7. The Haunted Melody 8. Bright Moments 9. Vertigo Ro

Personnel: Live: Bo van de Graaf (alto, tenor, soprano saxophones); Frans Vermeerssen (tenor, soprano saxophones); Alex Coke (tenor saxophone, flute, piccolo); Michiel Braam (piano); Arjen Gorter (bass) and Makki van Engelen (drums)

Track Listing: Pearls: 1. ABC 2. Magnetic Rag 3. La Fée Verte 4. The Pearls 5. Rue Jardinière 6. Jive at Five 7. Il Gatto 8. Eccentric Rag 9. Black Drop

Personnel: Pearls: Ellery Eskelin (tenor saxophone); Christian Weber (bass) and Michael Griener (drums)