Experiencing Tosca
Winter & Winter 910 093-2

The Current Underneath
Leo CD LR 379

Two approaches to the standard jazz piano trio end up with vastly different results with only one making a major statement.

On THE CURRENT UNDERNEATH, Swiss pianist Michel Wintsch puts aside the sentimental streak that undermined earlier efforts with his Euro-American WHO Trio to create nine slices of thoughtful improvised music. Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi and his two famous American sidemen in Tethered Moon, seems to have picked up all the indolent romanticism cast aside by Wintsch however, making EXPERIENCING TOSCA, a torpid and somewhat lugubrious exercise, more notable for lockstep methodology and top-flight recording sound than a range of emotions.

Kikuchi insists that he doesn’t like opera, because the visual aspect undermines his imagination. But the melodramatic details of Giacomo Puccini’s tale of the painter Cavaradossi, awaiting execution, thinking of his beloved Tosca are so established in Western musical thought that the mere act of homage to the composer provides a syrupy undertone to the eight improvisations.

Intentionally or not this back story isn’t helped by the fact that the pianist is a musical chameleon. He has dabbled in everything from contemporary jazz with trumpeter Terumasa Hino and as part of drummer Elvin Jones’ combo to funk with his All-Night All-Right Off-White Boogie Band. Tethered Moon, formed in 1990, has released earlier tribute CDs to singer Edith Piaf and composer Kurt Weill. It also happens to be completed by veteran bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian, both of whom put in time in the bands of two of jazz’s Ur-romantic pianists: Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett.

That means that almost every tune here is taken adagio or andante with the odd blues change or outright swinging section making its incongruent appearance like a hand-made clay bowl in the midst of a room full of fine crystal. Not that there’s too much of that either. One tune is even labeled a blues, but it’s not the sort of blues Bobby Timmons or even Oscar Peterson would recognize. Motian may highlight powerful cross sticking and Peacock a thumping beat, but the pianist’s standard changes, characterized by a single, flashy glissando, don’t re-imagine the form, the way someone like Uri Caine has down with lieder.

It’s the same story for most of the other numbers, low frequency ballads for the most part, filled with vibrated fantasia. In “Part II” for instance, the output is so subdued and tasteful that it almost sounds as if Kikuchi is referencing “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”. Should you want to hear a link to Jarrett or Peterson, however, that comes via the piano man’s over-recorded vocalisms. Grunts, retches and groans punctuate the daintiest etudes.

As all this is going on Peacock, whose ability to fit in with any situation has allowed him to work with folks as disparate as ethereal guitarist Ralph Towner and New Thing sax pioneer Albert Ayler, sticks to the pianist like seaweed on rice. Every time Kikuchi makes a particularly salient point, it’s echoed by the perfect tone from the bassist — arco or pizzicato. Additionally, when Kikuchi rouses himself from ravishing impressionistic harmonies to showcase swinging left-handed pressure or tremolo voicings, Motian’s right there, adding a wasabi of knife-sharp cymbal slaps or spherical ratamacues.

Anything but skyward bound, the performances on the CD are actually tethered to the ground, rather than the moon.

Together for a shorter period, The Who Trio has fused into an exceptional performance unit. Peripatetic American drummer Gerry Hemingway, who is occupied with numerous bands on both sides of the Atlantic, adds pinpoint percussion accents exactly where needed, and Swiss bassist Bänz Oester is the consummate accompanist. Chief composer Wintsch, who as a rule sounds less-than-comfortable in freer situations like his CD with guitarist Fred Frith and vocalist Franziska Baumann, may have found the perfect setting for his ideas.

This is made most clear on “Seduna in Wallis” parts1 and 2, which combined are 14¼-minutes of definite EuroJazz, designated that way because the two draw on both the jazz and classical traditions without straining. A sensible swinger that begins with flashing octaves and key pats from Wintsch, it’s extended by Hemingway’s steady snare and cymbal beats plus prickly bent notes from Oester.

Moving into part 2, the tune is decorated with anthem-like harmonies and two handed, two tempo piano notes arriving from different places to intersect. Soon hard-handed touch and pedal extensions ratchet up the tautness and excitement level, as one of Wintsch’s hands appears to be reaching out across the keyboard to stroke different patterns, augmented with forearm force. Speedy arpeggios roll back and forth with contrasting patterns in either hand, with the pianist generating a dramatic waterfall of slinky, bent notes. Rocketing up the impetus, the drummer contributes rim and cymbal shots and a military tattoo on snare, riding nearly every part of the kit with double flams, bounces and rebounds. Finally the tension dissipates after ponticello shuffle bowing from Oester and what seems to be Wintsch playing the opening strain from Ornette Coleman’s “Focus On Sanity”.

European chansonnier-linked ballads make their appearance here as they did on earlier WHO CDs. Yet this time the pianist overcomes their innate mawkishness, using

key clips, pedal pumps and other pragmatic strategies to strip them down to the musical core. Thus a piece like “Ma p’tite chanson”, aided by Oester’s thwacks and string-stretching evolves from tinkly piano fluff to a polyrhythmic exercise in tempo changing abstraction. Would that Kikuchi had done the same on his disc.

Other compositions — by Wintsch, other pop tunesmiths or jointly from the trio —benefit from other surprises. Clacking railway track sounds from the drummer and strummed octaves and cross-handed exercises from pianist livens them up. Meanwhile, the bassist’s invention is characterized by slapping bow wood against the bull fiddle’s wood for effect or riding the strings pizzicato like a skateboarder on an incline.

Trombonist Ray Anderson adds his slurring plunger work to the final tune with Wintsch introducing echoing electric piano tones. Yet with WHO members functioning on the same high level as before, “J’irai” is more a conformation of their talents than a change of pace.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Current: 1. Quartier Lointain 2. Swantra 3. Jerusalem 4. Seduna in Wallis, part 1 5. Seduna in Wallis, part 2 6. Ma p’tite chanson 7. Rabin's cat 8. Mir mag halt niemert öppis günnee 9. J’irai*

Personnel: Current: Ray Anderson (trombone)*; Michel Wintsch (piano, electric piano*); Bänz Oester (bass); Gerry Hemingway (drums)

Track Listing: Tosca: 1. Prologue 2. Part I 3. Part II 4. Part III 5. Homage to Puccini 6. Ballad 7. Blues for Tosca 8. Part IV

Personnel: Tosca: Masabumi Kikuchi (piano); Gary Peacock (bass); Paul Motian (drums)