Jason Stein’s Locksmith Isidore – Three Less Than Between (CF 153)
Conscious Mental Field Recordings (Satelita 002)
Olivier Thémines Trio – Miniatures (Yolk Label J2044)
Once relegated to sessions that attempt to revive Swing Music or Classic Jazz, members of the clarinet family have moved front-and-centre on the improvised music scene, at least since the early 1990s. This ends the reed hegemony of the saxophone which has been paramount at least since Bebop’s birth around 1939.
As these CDs demonstrate though, the newest generation of woodwind players is versatile enough to use technique and imagination to overcome the instrument(s) supposed soft tone and lack of suppleness when performing difficult music. At the same time, creating with equally committed players is a necessity – as is choice of proper material – or the woodwinds’ admirably pliable qualities turn squishy and spongy.
This certainly isn’t the case with Conscious Mental Field Recordings. Thick resonating vibrations from the bass of Norwegian Adrian Myhr make common cause with the microtonal timbres emanating from the clarinets of Paris’ Joris Rühl as well as the twanging distortions creaking scrapes and signal-processed electronic pulses from the guitar of Köln’s Maciej Sledziecki.
With Rühl, who often plays with other French improvisers such as pianist Eve Risser, alternating among angled chalumeau flutters, strident pockets of altissimo trills or restrained flat-line air expelling, the others have plenty of textures with which to deal. However at some points, the clarinet’s legit vibrato is seconded by watery string rubs; at others, the woodwind player’s strident peeps and screams are undermined by percussive guitar-string strums or knob-twisting amplified flams.
Careful to evolve contrapuntally throughout, however no trio member’s resonance overwhelm the others’, although the oscillated pulsations and clattering rubs that characterize Sledziecki’s work provide the percussive bottom to most of the tracks. Hocketing, fluttering and twanging, the guitarist, who also develops computer-based composition, produces sturdy balanced ostinatos throughout. The droning centrality of his licks are challenged on individual tracks when the reed man outputs gravelly striations, squealing yelps or pointed tongue slaps.
Cooperation is in evidence as well on Three Less Than Between from three Chicago improvisers. But there’s no denying that bass clarinetist Jason Stein is the senior partner. For a start, all the compositions are his, as is the name of the trio – honoring his late grandfather and the older man’s profession. Drummer Mike Pride was along for the first Locksmith Isidore CD, but bassist Jason Roebke – who has backed everyone from trombonist Jeb Bishop to cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm – wasn’t. Now with an even-more-unified and powerful rhythmic base, Stein has his work cut out for him to avoid being overpowered. Recall, though, he is someone who held his own as the other horn player in a quartet with multi-reedist Ken Vandermark.
Using his reed command to bring forth references to the work of bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, Stein and his compositions are firmly in the jazz tradition, unlike the kinetic collages which make up Conscious Mental Field Recordings. In fact, the trio frequently recaps the head after playing shout choruses. At the same time the CD’s compositions and performance are definitely post-modern, taking atonality and exploration as touchstones.
That means that timbral reed extension, rather than the often-chalumeau sound of the bass clarinet is on show here. Plus for every piece such as “Amy Music”, which sounds as if Stein is resuscitating a previously unknown Dolphy line, there are others rife with skittering and slipping tongue flutters, shrill tones sounding above the instrument’s highest pitches and stuttering basso lows.
Compositions such as “Stevenesque” for instance expose many variants. Beginning with a high-register evocation of Lacy’s soprano tone, Stein moves to hesitant and accented shakes and flutters – played a capella – subsequently alternating sluicing lyrical lines with reed bites. Behind him Roebke adds sul ponticello scrapes and Pride a shuffle beat. The drummer’s polyrhythmic pattern encompasses clips, clacks r ratamacues and rim shots elsewhere. Again, the session is traditional enough to make room for drum and bass solos.
Traditionalism of a less enlightened fashion appears to enthrall French clarinetist Olivier Thémines and his trio on Miniatures, which true to the title encompasses 20 tracks, the majority of which cleave to the three minute mark. Well-played trifles, the tracks are supposed to include linkages to Buster Keaton, Giuffre and composer Johnny Carisi.
Unfortunately, even with a track out-and-out labeled “Giuffrian Sketch”, the concepts of the American master of trio interaction don’t appear to be reflected in anything except brevity. Giuffre did improvise concisely – and for longer periods when he felt so inclined – and he did contrapuntally match his clarinet in a trio which alternately featured guitar or piano and bass. But Thémines’ associates on this essay on chamber jazz are pianist Guillaume Hazebrouck and vibraphonist Kit Le Marec. Rather than evoking the austere minimalism of the Guiffre3, this blending of piano and vibes calls forth memories of the often baroque Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) – which did record with Giuffre – or the contemporary lyrical tones of vibist Gary Burton and pianist Chick Corea. At its weakest some of the voicing and harmonies from clarinet, vibes and piano suggest the burnished timbres George Shearing groups of the 1950s which often abutted background music.
Hazebrouck’s harder touch and bluesy modulations on show in several spots appear to be buried under baroque-like formalism most of the time. Submerged too in the sometimes precious arrangements are Thémines’ occasional slinky chromaticism and the ringing waterfall of sounds Le Marec capably creates.
“Satellite” is typical of the program. A composition that could have been composed by the MJQ’s John Lewis, it’s an allegro shuffle that harmonizes clarinet and piano lines. Although the interaction is polyrhythmic, flat-lined sluggish is evident as well. Also along those lines is “Le basilic” where tender piano arpeggios ricochet off identically timed vibe plinks, until the romantic-styled narrative builds up to reed flutter-tonguing soaring over the other instruments’ double counterpoint.
Much more impressive are the low frequency trills the clarinetist produces on “Court et muet” which complement Hazebrouck’s stroking of his piano harp string following a theme elaboration. Also notable is “Rossinate” where the pianist’s high-frequency dynamics and double timing makes room for slinking trills from Thémines and feather-light pops from Le Marec.
While the teeny themes the French trio creates on Miniatures are a bit too diminutive to do more than pass by pleasantly, Thémines does expose one method of clarinet improvisation. Stein’s and Rühl’s trios on the other hand are part of fully realized sonic projects. Each also expresses exceptional command of his preferred member(s) of the woodwind family.