Norbert Stein / Michael Heupel / Sebastian Gramss / Christoph Haberer / Matthias Muche

April 13, 2009

Direct Speech

Pata Music 19 CD

Given the circumstances that dominate jazz scene in the 21st Century, Rösrath-based tenor saxophonist and composer Norbert Stein and his band mates face a challenge typical for musicians of their age and stature: How far out should they go?

While the answer when listening to Direct Speech may be “not very”, this isn’t a criticism as much as recognition. One of the founders of Köln’s Jazzhaus musicians collective more than 30 years ago, a former member of the Kölner Saxophone Mafia and one of the composers for the 23-piece James Choice Orchestra, Stein’s more than 20-year-old Pata Music imprint –named for pata physics that is concerned with unreal logic and the science of imaginary solutions – has, despite the name, showcased his composing and playing in different ethno-centric, programmatic and straight big-band settings.

Obviously the saxophonist – and by extension his sidemen – have decided that they’d rather be eclectic than avant-garde. This is despite the fact that two other players – flutist Michael Heupel and bassist Sebastian Gramss –are in the Choice Orchestra, while Matthias Muche has been involved with minimalist sessions with pianist Philip Zoubek. Redefining the contemporary tradition is as valid a stance as hard-core experimentation. Yet while Stein’s 11 compositions on Direct Speech are competently played with numerous instances of professionalism and originality, this is no desert island disc. Not every CD has to be, but with the 21st Century’s overload of available improvised material Direct Speech is just another high-class session of contemporary jazz.

“Alice in der parallelen Welt (Alice in the Parallel World)” for instance, sounds as if the Lewis Carroll heroine has wondered into a planet influenced by Machito or even Santana. Thick, walking bass lines and stick-pressured back-beat drumming accompany a flute interlude that’s half-gritty in a Herbie Mann-like mode. In contrast, Stein’s tenor solo is very much-post Coltrane emotional with slurring glossolalia, squeaking altissimo and irregular vibrato. Muche’s blustery mainstream runs are more J. J. Johnson than Willie Colon, and he offers variations of that role at various junctures throughout the rest of the disc. Still, there is a point on the soulful “Music for Stand-alone Player”, where Muche appears to be playing Roswell Rudd-like plunger tones to complement Stein’s tough, splintered Archie Shepp-like output.

As a composer/arranger, the tenor man evidently prefers a polyphonic horn line up, with many of the tunes unrolling like “For: Get it!” On this track the lines modulate upwards from andante to a gallop, as Heupel outputs calliope-like slide-insinuations, while Haberer’s cymbal clacks, paradiddles and drags are less obtrusive then on other pieces which open up for drum solos. Conclusion is another common Stein trope, layering horn parts, which jerk the tune back to andante, then an even faster tempo change before a conclusive end.

To co-opt the CD’s title, in direct speech this is a good disc that shows off the talents of Stein and the others in their best light. It will likely give enjoyment to many. Those searching for definitive, innovative musical statements that will be remembered for years to come however should look elsewhere,

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Chameleon Nature 2. Music for Stand-alone Player 3. For: Get it! 4. Die Tochter des Papstes (The Daughter of the Pope) 5. Die Zen Gebote (The Zen Commandments) 6. Daily Life 7. No Bird beyond the Cage 8. Les Yeux de l´Oiseau de la Guerre (The Eyes of the Bird of War) 9. Direct Speech 10. Alice in der parallelen Welt (Alice in the Parallel World) 11. Borderline

Personnel: Matthias Muche (trombone); Norbert Stein (tenor saxophone); Michael Heupel (flutes); Sebastian Gramss (bass) and Christoph Haberer (drums)