Frozen Ropes
Barking Hoop BKH-009

The Traveller
Jazzaway JARCD 011

Recording with strings seems be the secret desire of every saxophonist, at least ever since Charlie Parker did his famous BIRD WITH STRINGS sessions in the 1950s. These two CDs, recorded almost simultaneously, but in different countries, show how two veteran alto players of the first and second wave of the avant garde adapt to variations of this setting.

Sonny Simmons, 72, who first recorded with fellow California saxist Prince Lasha back in 1962, chooses the accepted with-strings formula. This session from Oslo playing over harmonies composed, arranged and conducted by flautist Vidar Johansen and interpreted by the Kringkastningsorkesteret of two violins, a viola and a cello.

First known for his association with St. Louis’ Black Artists Group collective, in contrast, sixty-three-year-old Oliver Lake hooks up with the long-established String Trio in New York (STNY). Not only is the STNY of guitarist James Emery, violinist Ron Thomas and bassist John Lindberg numerically smaller than Simmons’ back-up, but the Americans approach their role as collaborators rather than accompanists.

In spite of its title, THE TRAVELLER relies as much on the durable keyboard voicing of local Anders Aarum as Simmons’ alto saxophone and English horn – so much so, that at times it seems as if it’s the pianist who is working with string accompaniment, not the altoist. Exception to the formula occurs on the blatantly titled “Duet”. Limited to the saxman and bassist Mats Eilertsen, it’s a moderato outing reminiscent of Eric Dolphy’s famous 1963 duo with Richard Davis. Side-slipping faster trills and overblowing altissimo tones, the saxophonist joins fleet-fingered string-slapping from Eilertsen.

Elsewhere, as opposed to the harsh looseness of Simmons’ more experimental small group work, the strings and piano trio accompaniment often veers close to adult contemporary radio territory. This is especially noticeable on pieces when the strings flutter in ambient polyphony and Johansen’s flute lines warble on top. Sometimes, as well, Simmons’ tone on alto is so deceptively clean and unhurried that you may think you’ve put on a middle-of the-road LP from the 1960s.

Luckily, as he proves on tracks such as “Spheres”, there’s still tartness left in his delivery. Here his double-tonguing and multiphonics suggest what Charlie Parker may have sounded like had he survived into the New Thing era. On this track, the pianist takes off on a Jarrett-like chord heavy and impressively voiced collection of widely splayed arpeggios. Backed by cushioning strings, he combines with the alto man for the shout chorus.

“Humprhey” is the one example of Simmons’ English horn prowess, and his astringent smears and tongue splashes raise the interpretation into Dolphy territory and call for sweeping near dissonant lines from the accompanists.

Meanwhile, working out on two of Jones’ tunes, one each by Lindberg and Emery, plus John Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament”, Lake and the STNY seem to mesh from the beginning. With literally fewer strings to harmonize than on THE TRAVELLER, the New York three are able to adapt non-traditional patterns and tunings almost from the beginning. Recorded in non-romantic Paramus, New Jersey, there’s still room for Lake’s abrasive ballad “Reminds Me” the Trane standard and a blues. Modern mainstream, most of FROZEN ROPES’ tunes follow the exposition-variations-theme recapitulation formula, so there’s little chance of the listener getting lost.

There’s also rhythmic innovation on pieces such as the title tune. It encompasses Thomas moving from staccato pitch-sliding and jumps to squeezing out sounds form his fiddle’s upper partials to him and Emery romping à la Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. Add to this dissonant finger-picking from the guitarist, polyharmonies from the bass and violin and the tune is pleasantly musically schizophrenic.

Emery’s “Texas Koto Blues” proves that it’s still possible to wring unique timbres out of older forms. Using a soprano nylon string guitar, he replicates koto-like texture as if the first century Japanese instrument is being played by Sleepy John Estes or Kokomo Arnold. Added to this is Lake double-tonguing Midwestern blues licks which combine with Emery’s single-string snaps, slides and strokes create an unabashed foot tapper. As Thomas saws away like primitive blues fiddler Butch Cage, the tune climaxes polyphonically with intense vibrations from Lake’s reed and knife-style echoes from Emery’s guitar.

“Shiffs”, the first and longest tune, showcases all the four set out to do. Multi-textural, it evolves double-stopped violin arpeggios, nylon string chromatic runs and flails and bass strings pops plus Lake’s powerful blowing matched with rasgueado from Emery, spiccato runs from Thomas and drags from Lindberg.

As the violinist makes a smooth transition to outputting double and triple stops, these meet double- and triple-tonguing from the saxophonist, surging, finger-picking counterpoint from the guitarist picks up from Lake’s reed smears and glossolalia. A recapping of theme gives way to barking and yelping horn splashes in wider intervals, sul ponticello fiddle lines, as the tune ends with a string-driven crescendo.

Since much of FROZEN ROPES is at that same elevated level, it has a slight edge over THE TRAVELLER. But both CDs prove that conventional or unconventional string groupings don’t have to drag down impassioned improvised music.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Frozen: 1. Shiffs 2. Frozen Ropes 3. Reminds Me 4. Texas Koto Blues 5. Lonnie’s Lament

Personnel: Frozen: Oliver Lake (alto saxophone); Ron Thomas (violin); James Emery (guitar and soprano guitar); John Lindberg (bass)

Track Listing: Traveller: 1. Humprhey 2. Armada 3. Spheres 4. Duet 5. Brainstorm 6. Sunset

Personnel: Traveller: Sonny Simmons (alto saxophone and English horn); Vidar Johansen (flute); Anders Aarum (piano); Mats Eilertsen (bass); Ole Thomas Kolberg.(drums) and Kringkastningsorkesteret: Herald Aadland and Eyleen Siegel (violins); Bendik Foss (viola); Kari Ravnan (cello)