Samuel Blaser / Alban Darche / Sébastien Boisseau / John Hollenbeck

December 1, 2014


Yolk Music J2059


Willisau & Berlin

Intakt Records 231 CD

Co-operation and self-expression are the watchwords of these trombone-reeds quartets as each works out a program that swings unabashedly while making room for dexterous arrangement and free-form soloing. A retrofit of an existing trio, the all-German Squakk adds the acknowledged skills of Rudi Mahall on clarinet and bass clarinet plus his recorded debut as a baritone saxophonist to a band consisting of trombonist Christof Thewes, bassist Jan Roder and drummer Michael Griener. A more international affair, JASS consists of French musicians, tenor saxophonist Alban Darche and bassist Sébastien Boisseau, plus two Berlin-based expats: American percussionist John Hollenbeck and Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser.

Although JASS, the collective band name, is formed from the first initial of each man’s name, it also ironically evokes the original spelling of Jazz. JASS’ sexual connotations quickly forced musicians to adopt the first of many synonyms for the music. However no matter how loose the groove may be on this disc, no one is likely to confuse Blaser with Kid Ory or Boisseau with Pops Foster.

While frankly the trombonist does use some of the extended slurs that characterize Trad Jazz in his delivery he’s equally adept at firing off speedy triplet to make his point. And while the Nantes-based bassist can time keep with the best, his adaptive skill has allowed him to work with everyone from Louis Sclavis’ avant-folklore imaginaire to straightforward pop singers. With equal versatility Darche has worked with choreographers as well as in formations ranging from trios to big bands. Characteristically his expositions here echo Bop and Swing tropes as well as more modern stylings.

The most striking quality in how JASS approaches every one of the 10 tunes – compositions by everyone but Boisseau – is Hollenbeck’s idiosyncratic percussion attack. Swing band inferences suggested by sonic layering on “SAJ’s” for instance move into the modern era as the drummer’s backing involves what sounds like smacking the tops of plastic bottles. Then there’s Hollenbeck’s writing. An exposition such as “Tricéphale” evolves from thorny rhythmic thrusts from the ensemble, evolves to a gentle swing line and eventually becomes more intense in an exciting canon-like fashion by the two horns.

With a drummer such as this, able to push – as on “Limp Mint” – or subtly break up the beat – as on “Recurring Dreams” – when necessary, the other three have equal freedom in which to excel. Different duo strategies as in bass and saxophone; trombone and saxophone and drum and trombone are tried out with equally fulfilling results. In truth, the most characteristic tune is Hollenbeck’s sardonically titled “Jazz Envy”. Ending with pressurized firmness, the fundamental sequence is when the drummer, saxophonist and trombonist are playing parallel lines simultaneously without upsetting each other’s narratives. The piece finally segments into clearly defined but connective patterns.

Considering that Mahall and Roder have played together for years in Die Entäuschung; and that Thewes and the reedist are both in the Globe Unity Orchestra; means that the Squakk sound is amplified as well as changed with its new member. Good-natured Mahall, who has always included some jive in his presentation, seems perfectly at home moving from Swing Era clarinet licks to Cool School baritone smears to contemporary bass clarinet forays. With saxophone blended with trombone the band sound may resemble that of Gerry Mulligan’s Quartet with Bob Brookmeyer. But paradoxically, exposing theatrical vamping from the two horns plus Griener’s tom-tom prowess on “Lark’s Wail” puts the band into more of a Swing Era mode than even Mulligan may have imagined. Mahall’s clarinet prowess also allows him to exhibit a spindly screech tone throughout “Draw” but while still investing it with a full-bodied tone.

More crucial for establishing the band identity are “A Dune, Perhaps” and “Schlimmer Geit Nimmer/Schlimmer”. Backed by Roder’s walking, the former blends Thewes’ capillary coloration and Mahall’s jittery vibrations into modern two-beat showcase; while the latter is a stop-time exhibition, lengthy enough to gives every Squakker room to express himself. Especially impressive is how the rhythm section cunningly alters the time below the front line as plunger trombone smears and slithery reed peeps aim for a thematic climax. Roder’s methodical solo is then matched by capillary stutters from Thewes, until Griener’s rim shots and Mahall’s pacing turns the tune back to pure swing with a crescendo of intertwining horns.

Willisau & Berlin’s showpiece is the nearly 21-minute “Nova Swing”, which lives up to its name in both movement and modernity. Characteristic of Squakk’s skill is a sequence towards the end when Mahall’s straight clarinet unrolls a mid-range solo that could have come from Benny Goodman, but is prevented from being nostalgia by appending squeaks and split tones to his narrative. Thewes’ output too is both pre-and post-modern. At one point his flutters almost approximate aggressive pistol-firing; at another his mellow squeezes and swelling plunger tones reference Classic Jazz stylists. At points the brass slides and reed shrills work in broken counterpoint; elsewhere they leapfrog over one another as Roder’s strings snap and Griener’s rolls pumps. Eventually the tune reaches a striking climax, with round-robin solos, fast-slow, unremitting and with broken time until tough drum rumbles signal the ending.

Comparing group names may suggest that one quartet’s program is more old-fashioned than the other’s. That’s untrue. Each has created a satisfying up-to-date take on original quartet music,

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: JASS: 1. Recurring Dreams 2. Saj’s 3. Jazz Envy 4. Water 5. Limp Mint 6. Driving License 7. No D 8. Miss Univers 2031 9. It Began to Get Dark 10. Tricéphale.

Personnel: JASS: Samuel Blaser (trombone); Alban Darche (tenor saxophone); Sébastien Boisseau (bass) and John Hollenbeck (drums)

Track Listing: Willisau: 1. Nova Swing 2. Blue Chili Out 3. Draw 4. A Dune, Perhaps 5. Mostly Harmless 6. Was Aus 7. Schlimmer Geit Nimmer/Schlimmer Geit Immer 8. Trinklied 9. Lark’s Wail 10. Auf Der Schnerr

Personnel: Willisau: Christof Thewes (trombone); Rudi Mahall (clarinet; bass clarinet and baritone saxophone); Jan Roder (bass) and Michael Griener (drums)