Steve Swell/Robert Boston/Michael Vatcher

February 6, 2021

Brain in a Dish
NoBusiness Records CD 121

OutNote Records OTN 633

Unexpected trio settings for two innovative trombonists find them elaborating antithetical but uniquely distinctive creations. From the American side, New York trombonist Steve Swell is usually involved in sessions with other horns and a mixture of composed and improvised tracks expressing his concepts or those of equally strong genre-definers such as William Parker. In this modest configuration though Swell plays with recently repatriated American drummer Michael Vatcher, who has spent years in Amsterdam working in bands with the likes of Michael Moore; and the unheralded in Free Music circles, keyboardist Robert Boston, who usually works with dance companies. A Swiss extravaganza, 1291 features three of that country’s most accomplished musicians who usually lead their own bands highlighting originals plus Arcadian and Classic Jazz standards. Besides trombonist Samuel Blaser who works with everyone from Marc Ducret to Gerry Hemingway, there’s bassist Heiri Känzig, who plays with Chico Freeman and veteran drummer Daniel Humair, whose affiliations go back to accompanying Phil

The majority of the Swell/Boston/Vatcher tracks are suitably low key, but not low energy, relying on drum shuffles, supple plunger trombone lines and relaxed piano comping or organ pulses. Usual strategies include brass growls and elaborations, moved along by multi-register piano asides and simple drum pops. Tracks such as the concluding “Psychopath in a Church” include wavering organ tremolos that create an undertow on which to display capillary textures that surge from watery to plunger solidity. Along with mercurial drum patterns such as martial rolls and paradiddles, keyboard squeals, and a representative trombone sequence on “Fried or Roasted” where slide ejaculations move from narrow puffs to eviscerated snarks though, some of the notable tracks are slightly looser and speedier.

The introductory title track, for instance, starts with sharpened brass yelps, rat-tat-tat drums and piano key chops until Swell’s distinctive top-of-range slurs and slithers define the theme. Contrapuntal key dusting and steady drum rattles confirm the track’s unhurried rhythmic identity. “Tastier than Oranges” includes scene-setting percussion clip clops and slithering arpeggiated runs from the piano producing a steadying backdrop for some of Swell’s more spectacular biting yelps and doits that surge into high pitches moderated only slightly by a calming keyboard climax.

Coming from a diametric position are the 14 (!) tracks on 1291. Named for the year in which some cantons united to found the country, nationalism is expressed in brief traditional or antique Swiss airs. In the main these are bagatelles though, relaxed and folksy melodies with low pitches and languid elaboration Quiet textures also serve to reinforce each member’s subtle versatility. More generic to the program are the New Orleans and Blues classics which make up more of the disc. Jazz is as much, if not more, of the trio’s heritage as mountain melodies. But it’s interpretative heritage filtered through modern concepts with none of three likely to tune up at a afternoon Dixieland session any time soon.

Paramount example of this is the treatment of “High Society”. Strings plinking and plunking and the brass head modified with multiphonics allow the trio creates a near-contrafact after Humair switches from two to four beats, and Känzig’s thumps suggesting a Second Line march. Hand drum pumps and plunger brass upsurges lead to a sequence where the bassist sweeps and hums like Slam Stewart, until a cymbal slap brings back the head. Elsewhere the run-throughs of the (over?) familiar melodies confirm the musicians’ bone fides. But though the tunes add a touch of jaunty cheerfulness, the renditions are mostly too brief. Even the hoary “Original Dixieland One Step” which opens the disc, is more notable as an instance of how to pump progressive concepts into primitive swing than as an improvisational definition.

More notable are the musicians’ originals. Blaser’s “Belafonte” for instance is slippery and ambulatory with some bumping variables that swing with a poppy theme. Känzig’s “Bass Song” manages to mix a low-pitched bass stops and kazoo-like elaborations to define the groove. Blaser’s double-and triple stopping slurs get more of a workout on Humair’s “Jim Dine” as he adds fluidity to the narrative that already vibrates with harmonized waking bass-trombone bombast, cymbals clashes and drum rattles. Slurped to the end by the trombonist, the track ends with repeated plunger patterns.

Traditionally a trio is usually the smallest configuration in which sophisticated improvisers can delineate their transformative skills. These notable brass/percussion/chordal instrument dates prove the truth in that concept.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Brain: 1. Brain in a Dish 2. New Use for Old Neurons 3. Feed Me! 4. Just another Alogism 5. Tastier than Oranges 6. No Heavy Perfumes 7. How Do You Like Yours? 8. Fried or Roasted? 9. See Our Ad 10. Trepanation Trepidation 11. Psychopath in a Church

Personnel: Brain: Steve Swell (trombone); Robert Boston (piano and organ) and Michael Vatcher (drums)

Track Listing: 1291: 1. Original Dixieland One Step 2. Guggisberglied 3. Les oignons 4. Grégorien à St Guillaume de Neuchâtel 5. Belafonte 6. 7even 7. Poya 8. High Society 9. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? 10. Ory’s Creole Trombone 11. Bass Song 12. Jim Dine 13. Ory’s Original Creole Dixieland Trombone One Step 14. Cantique suisse

Personnel: 1291: Samuel Blaser (trombone); Heiri Känzig (bass) and Daniel Humair (drums)