Pat Thomas / Paul Hession / Mick Beck / Jan Kopinski / Wojtek Konikiewicz / Steve Harris

October 6, 2003

Zone K



The three b’s

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Putting electric keyboards into a trio with reeds and drums can sometimes overbalance the sonority, so that it moves away from pure improv and closer to rhythmic simplicity. Because the gizmos are set up to hold and accentuate notes, it appears to be easier to create riffs, vamps and blends then investigate more cerebral experiments. This tendency can be further exacerbated if the keyboardist’s playing partners lean towards simpler syncopation as well.

ZONE K and THE THREE B’S — both recorded live — show what can and can’t be done in this format. The later is more thought provoking because the trio members choose the experimental over the popular every time. Not that, except for a couple of instances, that there’s anything cheap or pandering with the first CD. However both impressionistic accompaniment and obstreperous rock rhythms are emphasized over unreserved improvisations.

In a way this shouldn’t be a surprise. Two of the players — alto and tenor saxophonist Jan Kopinski and drummer Steve Harris — have been part of Nottingham, England’s almost quarter-century old Free/Funk/Punk Jazz quintet Pinski Zoo. The third, Polish keyboardist/pianist Wojtek Konikiewicz, who also composes in genres including orchestral, chamber, electronic and what he calls Progressive Jazz — wasn’t that Stan Kenton’s catchphrase?– has toured on-and-off with Pinski Zoo since 1987.

The basic tension in Pinski Zoo has always been the conflict between Kopinski’s impassioned, Coltranesque extemporizations on tenor saxophone and the basic rock pulse set out by Harris and others. Konikiewicz’s presence seems to overweigh the equation. As one of Warsaw’s busiest and most versatile performers his dexterity in so many genres may it difficult to track down the inner musician.

On “Troika”, for instance, the thematic funk he produces from the keys comes complete with a heavy bass line, which when coupled with on-the-beat percussion bring to mind Georgie Fame at the Flamingo or Graham Bond at the Roundhouse. Later on, his wah-wah clavinet textures seem to have migrated from a 1970s Herbie Hancock date, along with Harris’ bounces and ruffs. It gets so that Kopinski on alto sax takes on a Dave Sanborn persona, with nothing to relieve the buttery-smooth R&B smudges but a few half-hearted reed screams.

Although Kopinski manages to stick to tenor, the penultimate and final numbers don’t fare that much better. Both include an earsplitting buzz, which one would hope is a mixing board malfunction rather than the height of Polish electronica — no joke, or offence intended — with Harris accentuating every beat he can and Konikiewicz’s oscillating keyboard thumps. Well-modulated themes and long-lined cadenzas from the saxman sound as if they were created in isolation, with the endproduct conjuring up a picture of John Coltrane in a studio with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer. The overall result is too rough to be radio friendly, but too smooth to be truly exciting.

Nadir is reached on “Impresja XV”, however, a solo feature for Konikiewicz. On acoustic grand piano his chameleon-like style is on full display. As flowery as it’s impressionistic, his strummed tremolos and extended arpeggios seem to change influences on almost every note, calling forth suggestions of Keith Jarrett [!], Art Tatum [!!], Frédéric Chopin [!!!], and Floyd Cramer [!!!!].

Thankfully the two first — and longest — tracks are much better. They may even save the disc for Kopinski fans. The saxman, whose allegiance appears to be with the modal Coltrane and earlier tenor men, spins out some smooth counterlines here, double timing in the lower register of the horn. Harris’ drumming is steadier, exhibiting a bopper’s reliance on cymbals, drum rolls and bomb dropping, and Konikiewicz’s comping encompasses modal runs, steady vamps and chromatic fills.

Funk and pop seem to be the farthest thing from the minds and instruments of the all-British trio on THE THREE B’S. For a start, while keyboardist Pat Thomas may have grounding in other styles, his major alliance is to FreeImprov in the company of practitioners such as drummer Tony Oxley, Swiss violist Charlotte Hug and the Norwegian-British co-op, No spaghetti edition. Another longtime improviser, drummer Paul Hession has been part of The Anglo-Argentine Jazz Quartet with saxophonist George Haslam, and in many of bassist Simon H. Fell’s projects. Reedist Mick Beck has worked with pianist Stephen Grew and Fell, playing both tenor saxophone and bassoon, both of which are on display here.

If there’s an unfortunate aspect to this disc is that the applause is bluntly truncated at the end of each track. Who knows, though, it could have gone on for many minutes, since Beck, Hession and Thomas were in fine form on that night in Leeds.

Certainly Thomas skronks out sharp, amplified tones almost from the first second, quickly converting them into supersonic, Sun Ra-like outer space timbres. Meanwhile Beck squeezes out a protracted bassoon line that sounds as if it’s levitating him from the stage, and Hession uses bare sticks as well as toms and snares for rhythmic impetus. As the sonorous double reed blows resolutely it surmounts a steady drum roll, bell-like clinks from the cymbals and keyboard glisses. When Thomas’ output begins to resemble that of a No Wave guitarist, Hession adapts the sort of Post Rock beat that ZONE K aimed for and missed. The entire rave up ends with Beck honking away on his sax then mumbling through the mouthpiece.

“Boracic lint” finds Thomas’ tremolo bass line suggesting Jimmy Smith’s fancy footwork on the organ pedals, while Hession’s rock-solid beat meets a bassoon pedal point ostinato and reed solos in the cello range. Then on “B arty”, the colored air moving through the amplified bassoon sounds like a combination of racing car acceleration and a sitar with loosened strings. Sine wave pressure from the keyboard is interrupted by pre-recorded voices from a radio talk show, with other portions of the program popping in and out of the subsequent cacophony. A shimmering keyboard pulse then melds with crashing drumbeats until both are surmounted by jagged, offcentre tenor saxophone cries.

Finally the most versatility shows up on “B party”, where samples of Country-Pop tunes vie for aural supremacy with what could be the output from a penny whistle and a musette. Soon hollow drum sounds meet Beck seemingly playing “Reveille”, then constant runs and squeals give way to what appears to be the sounding of an unaccompanied Indonesian gong. Horn honks, ascending space ship shudders and what could be the fretting of a mechanized banjo end the piece.

Nearly 46 minutes of first-class improv, THE THREE B’S is a session that should be sought out. It proves irrefutably that the mechanized weaknesses of the electrical keyboard can be overcome by the right people.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Zone: 1. Corner jam 2. Night to dream 3. Troika 4. Impresja XV 5. Trinity Meet 6. Pool Fool

Personnel: Zone: Jan Kopinski (alto and tenor saxophones); Wojtek Konikiewicz (piano, keyboard); Steve Harris (drums)

Track Listing: Three: 1. B hind 2. B patient 3. B party 4. B arty 5. Boracic lint 6. B ware of the ***

Personnel: Three: Mick Beck (tenor saxophone, bassoon); Pat Thomas (keyboards, samples); Paul Hession (percussion)