Mick Beck / Stephen Grew / Phillip Marks / Nush Werchowska / Mathias Pontévia / Heddy BoubakerMarch 27, 2006
By Ken Waxman
March 27, 2006
Whether it started with John Coltrane’s hour-long saxophone workouts in the 1960s, those extended Norman Granz-organized jam sessions in the 1940s, or, to go back further, Classic Jazzers taking chorus after chorus on standards like “When the Saints Go Marching In”, brevity has never been considered a virtue in improvised music.
This tendency was exacerbated with the invention of the lengthier and more expensive CD, as musicians previously able to say all they had to in 40-minute wedges, suddenly felt they had to lengthen each track to give the cost-conscious consumer an hour or more of music. Luckily that fad has lessened over the past couple of years, with astute performers acknowledging that quality wins out over quantity. These sessions by similarly constituted trios of musicians who live in different cities on either side of the English Channel provide the truth of that assessment.
Lancaster-based pianist Stephen Grew’s It’s morning, featuring bassoonist/tenor saxophonist Mick Beck from Sheffield and drummer Phillip Marks from Manchester, consists of eight compositions played in a mere 44½ minutes. Even more condensed, the three improvisations created by the co-operative trio of Paris-based pianist Nush Werchowska, drummer Mathias Pontévia of Bordeaux and alto saxophonist Heddy Boubaker, who lives near Toulouse, clock in at an economical two seconds less than 29 minutes. The playing standards of Werchowska/Pontevia/Boubaker’s Glotosifres and It’s morning are at such a high level however, that no listener should feel shortchanged by either set.
For instance, all of the French CD is dedicated to the non-idiomatic timbres that can be expressed with these traditional instruments, not unlike the similarly consisted trio of pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, reedist Evan Parker and percussionist Paul Lovens. Even more so than Lovens, however, Pontévia, who plays a self-constructed drum kit, and has worked with well-known Gallic improv explorers like reedist Daunik Lazro and pianist Frédéric Blondy, doersn’t hit or pummel his drums as much as sweep and scrape different parts of it. Werchowska, a member of the Machine Gun rock band with Pontévia, stops and scours the piano action with preparations as often as she extracts contrasting dynamics from the keys, and Boubaker, who plays with dancers as well as fellow sound experimenters such as saxophonist Michel Doneda and bassist Barre Phillips, peeps, squeaks and vibrates timbres and counter tones from his instrument.
Although Glotosifres’ three instant compositions were recorded in two different locations five months apart, they fit together without a glitch. During the course of the performances Pontévia concentrates on irregular pulsations, concentrated rumbles, percussive slaps and cymbal pops. Frequently as well, he seems to be swiffering his drum tops. For his part, Boubaker whistles hazily, peeps and whines irregularly, and while leaving proper pauses during his solos, vibrates subterranean growls or muffles abstract trills.
Werchowska is a revelation. Often double-stopping or dynamically jumping across the keys in a Cecil Taylor-like fashion, she also strums heavy-handed cadences in response to Boubaker’s accelerating, irregular split tones. Triggering internal sonics as if she was back at the electric keyboard of her rock band, Werchowska uses paper, cardboard or a metal tool on the acoustic piano’s internal wound strings to produce deadened cadences at the same time as she voices the external keys.
With the three players’ distinctive output as often smoothed as ruffled, an organic synergy is present throughout.
You could say the same for the Grew Trio. Part of the intimacy can be ascribed to the band members’ five year history together and their many tours. Not that this is the members’ exclusive improvising outlet. Part of Manchester’s Free Music scene for nearly 20 years, drummer Marks is also a member of the band Bark! with guitarist Rex Casswell and sampler player Paul Obermayer. Beck, who recorded a fine duo session with Grew on Bruce’s Fingers, regularly plays with drummer Paul Hession and bassist Simon H. Fell. As for Grew, whose keyboard voicing here sympathetically focus on clarity and melodic episodes, he’s a former visual artist, whose move to Lancaster 12 years ago convinced him to redirect his energies into music. Since then he has developed own language of scales and patterns, created music for a dance company and played with saxophonists as different as Lol Coxhill and Andy Sheppard.
Although Grew’s piano is frequently as prepared, pulled and propelled as Werchowska’s, when using conventional techniques, he defaults towards hyper-kinetic, almost boogie-woogie and stride configurations. In some cases these melodic fills are used as a base on which to counter the snap of Marks’ drums or his cymbal resonations. Other times rapid cadenzas rattle the soundboard as well as the keys. Duetting with Beck’s tenor saxophone, Grew’s jumping external keyboard arpeggios and plucked wound internal strings bring forth double-tongued undulations and muscular, split-toned grunts from the reedist.
“Good form and a bit of ankst (sic)” introduces rococo harmonies from the pianist as Beck playing bassoon and whistles, snorts bull-moose cries from one and rooster-like crowing from the other. Darting back and forth across the keys, Grew’s response is high- frequency mainstream chording and wavering pulses. Throughout Marks clanks and pops different parts of his kit using the occasional rim shot for emphasis. Impressive as all this is – especially when Beck punctuates his solo with irregularly pitched split tones and a few mouthpiece kisses – the three seem to be improvising in broken octaves, parallel rather than in unison.
More memorable are the three penultimate tracks – “Getting Hungry” and “For Stalactites” which run into one another, and the second-to-last “Midnight Revels”. Eerily reprising the heights of Energy Music, the last piece showcases snorting tenor saxophone lines studded with repeated double-tongued groans and split tones. Rocketing to altissimo pitches and diving to glottal growls, the reedist’s zeal is equaled by Grew, who after a few showy glissandi pumps out flowing cadenzas of curlicue lines. Meanwhile the drummer rolls, rebounds and stays out of the way.
The connected preceding tunes build up from a combination of swiftly tongued foghorn-like tones from the bassoon and buoy-marking ratchets from the percussionist. Polyphonically it soon seems as if Marks is cuffing and agitating his bass and smaller drums while Beck tongue stops and shatters phrases, finally squealing double reed timbres that soar from altissimo to sopranissimo at full tilt. Grew enters in the second of the double-barreled numbers with strummed phrases and hesitant single notes reminiscent of a similar strategy used by minimalist John Tilbury. By this point playing on the rims and sides of his drums, Marks subsequent bell-ringing and snare-bumping provides the perfect coda to Beck’s expansive honk that climatically shreds into internal squeaks.
Precisely the proper length for what they set out to accomplish, both CDs confirm that a succinct improvised session – or two for that matter – is more stimulating than ones
drawn-out for no good reason.