June 9, 2003

Circumvention Music 035

Gianluca Petrella
Auand 001

Quartets prominently featuring a trombonist, Gianluca Petrella’s Italian/English combo and the all-American Cosmologic co-op share more similarities than differences. Proving once again improvised music’s universality, this congruence wouldn’t be that apparent at first blush. After all, Cosmologic’s members are youngish academics as involved in electronics, chamber and World musics as jazz, while the Europeans are veterans of the Continental jazz scene. One, British bassist Paul Rogers, is practically a grizzled graybeard, best known for his membership in Mujician, the longstanding Brit improv band featuring veteran pianist Keith Tippett. Still, both groups’ sound comes from that general unspecified mode with as many echoes from outwardly directed freebop as out-and-out Free Jazz blowing.

Recorded live in San Diego, Calif., where reedman Jason Robinson and drummer Nathan Hubbard are members of the Trummerflora Collective, a creative music organization, the band on the first disc gets much of its impetus from trombonist Michael Dessen. Dessen, who has recorded with flautist Yusef Lateef and as part of pianist Anthony Davis’ opera Tania, is a clean, ultramodern soloist whose execution while far from gutbucket doesn’t preclude emotion. In that way his presentation is close to that of Bari, Italy-born Petrella. A conservatory graduate, his experience encompasses small group work with trumpeter Enrico Rava and membership in the Orchestre National de Jazz.

Many of the pieces on the American disc are set up with tonal contrasts between Dessen and Robinson, who brings a similar conception to his reed playing. Heading up Circumvention Music as well as doing other projects, the reedman has worked with reggae singer Eek a Mouse, the La Jolla Symphony, the San Francisco Mime Troupe and more expected improvisers like trombonist George Lewis, Davis and the late bassist Peter Kowald.

On this CD, the reed-brass partnership sometimes take on the fleet trapping of how trombonist J.J. Johnson and saxist Clifford Jordan used to manufacture swinging cool-bop lines. Funk is sometimes mixed with the Californians’ fleetness, though, as on “A Secret No One Knows II”, where Robinson screeches away at breakneck speed like a New Thing Johnny Griffin, while Dessen appear to expending no spit as he manipulates his slide into a lazy counterline at half speed.

Dessen begins “Artichoke Clock” by squealing off-kilter tones from his bell, meeting thick blasts from Robinson’s sax that dissolve into the hiss of colored air, giving the trombonist time to sound the theme. Soon he’s going down the chromatic scale in single notes as Robinson works his way upwards the same way. After bouncing tones off one another, the rhythm section finally comes in, spurring the front line to combine and play sharper and more staccato lines.

Percussionist Hubbard, who studies the rhythm traditions of the Caribbean, South America, West Africa, Eastern Europe and Indonesia, over time cranks up his beat work on snares, bass drum and toms then pulls out a clattering collection of so-called little instruments. Meanwhile bassist Scott Walton, whose playing partners include Lewis, Davis and a New music ensemble, as well as performance artists and poets, produces abrasive steel wool-like swipes on his bass strings, then turns microtonal, cramming more notes into his output, which also never loses the foot-taping beat. Also not lost is the quick darts of Dessen’s slide that sneaks in between the bass and drum excursions.

“Metal Tears” and “Circle Syntax”, which combine without a break, showcase Walton’s shaken and stirred bass work most prominently. Launching a languorous blues progression at one point, speedy arco work elsewhere and combining low notes from his bottom strings into a buzzing, connective melody, he holds his own with Hubbard. The percussionist mixes irregular, mallet-driven drumbeats and echoing cymbal pops, brushing cymbals, broadsword wooden block whacks and what appears to be American Indian-influenced snare work. Harmon-muted legato line slurs and growls on the former tune, then produces some Harmon-muted legato line on the later tune, though there also seems to be hints of Robinson’s electronics and Dessen’s bell as well.

“Ten Directions” is an apt name for the final tune, since the electronic hints from the reedist become a single, unvarying tone as Dessen vibrates his shaker and Hubbard creates an African log-drum pulse. Robinson’s delicate flute work, unveiled for the first time, really only becomes interesting when doubled by electronics wheezes however.

Moving from proximity to the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, a similar mixture of primitive and modern impulses appears on “Araucanos”, X-RAY’s last track. Written by Argentian-Italian woodwind player Javier Girotto, it features the piping sound of the quena, a traditional flute of the Andes. When trombonist Petrella picks out the theme the quena whistles on top of it for a time, until Girotto switches to soprano to better blend tones and offer a surface for overblowing. He holds one long note until the conclusion, as the trombone rhythmically fills the rest of the aural space.

Although its 11 selections add up to a shorter running than SYNTAX, X-RAY is an enhanced CD with embedded photos and two video tracks from the studio. Plus Girotto isn’t the only sideman who impresses.

Drummer Francesco Sotgiu, who has also played with the likes of Rava, multi- reedman Gianluigi Trovesi and American pianist Mal Waldron, is both powerful and inventive, not letting the time-keeping need mute his freedom to invent new patterns and rhythms. His barn-burning work on Rogers’ “Crunch”, the “jazziest” tune on the disc, also finds the bass man speedily brandishing his five-string, standup axe like a bass guitar. An extended bari buzz constitutes the coda.

On the title track conversely, Girotto appears to be playing “The Volga Boatman” at half speed while Petrella produces slurry chromatic breaks and Rogers decorates their work with chordal accompaniment. Clinking tones, then fingerpicking, characterize the bassist’s work on Girotto’s “Grandes Amigos”, which is obviously titled in Spanish, not Italian. Playing the hard-boppish line in lockstep, the two horns then split apart with the baritonist providing the basso continuum and the trombonist wiggling out some grace notes.

The most overtly outside piece is Rogers’ “Ra”, which may or may not be named for the Arkestra leader. Almost a dirge, it features odd squeaking sounds from bassist as he slides up and down his fretboard, asymmetric drum beats, percussive key pops from the saxist and unconnected trombone pulses. This suggests that the composition should be dedicated to Saturn’s most famous musician even if that wasn’t the original idea.

Without resorting to any of the clichés or the mindset of the neo-cons, two similarly constituted quartets have managed to produce completely different but equally impressive CDs. Forget commercial labeling, this is real contemporary jazz.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Cosmologic: 1. Restless Years 2. Mr. Hubbard’s Shock Installation 3. Artichoke Clock 4. Birdrock Dub 5. A Secret No One Knows II 6. Metal Tears 7. Circle Syntax 8. Axis 9. Ten Directions

Personnel: Cosmologic: Michael Dessen (trombone, bell, shakers); Jason Robinson (tenor saxophone, flute, electronics); Scott Walton (bass); Nathan Hubbard (percussion)

Track Listing: X-Ray: 1. Broken Head 2. X-Ray 3. G8 4. Femtosecond 5. Crunch 6. Reflex 7. Double Fin 8. Ra 9. Improvisi-zation 10. Grandes Amigos 11. Araucanos

Personnel: X-Ray: Gianluca Petrella (trombone); Javier Girotto (baritone and soprano* saxophones, quena*); Paul Rogers (five-string bass); Francesco Sotgiu (drums)