Magic Numbers
Songlines SGL SA1556-2

Hopscotch Records HOP 36

Conventional and unconventional methods of recording with a string quartet are highlighted on these CDs directed by vastly different reed players.

On MAGIC NUMBERS Toronto-based tenor and soprano saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff has taken the traditional route – composing eight pieces that feature him, plus New Yorkers, bassist Mark Helias and drummer Jim Black, improvising in front of a quartet of Montreal string players. In vivid contrast, except for the Duke Ellington-penned title track, all the pieces on SOLITUDE are instant compositions with Brooklyn-based tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Assif Tsahar giving equal prominence to percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani and members of the KJLA String Quartet.

Enjoyable in the tradition of those saxophone-and-strings dates that over the years have featured everyone from Stan Getz to Joe Lovano, occasionally the two violins, viola and cello on Nachoff’s CD threatens to fade into mere impressionistic background sounds. Meanwhile, while featuring the same instrumentation, SOLITUDE is as liberated and spiky as the reedist and percussionist would be playing as a duo.

Nachoff, who has recorded with British pianist John Taylor and Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger and is a member of guitarist Tim Posgate’s Hornband, also teaches jazz at the University of Toronto/ He cites classical and 20th century composers such as Mozart, Debussy Stravinsky and Schoenberg as inspirations, along with mainstream jazz and Black’s rock music leanings. Tsahar whose closest associations are with experimenters such as multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore and bassist William Parker puts his faith in atonality and with his unexpected textures produces a more challenging session.

Nachoff’s strategy uses Helias as the bridge between the so-called classical and the so-called jazz impulses in these tunes. But this separation alone points out one weakness here: the failure to fully integrate the string section into the compositions. Plus throughout, the saxophonist’s tendency is to opt for smoothness in most of his solos.

This admixture can work, however. For instance, “How Post-Modern of Me”, which telegraphs its changes in its tongue-in-cheek title, features an interaction among impressionistic string shimmers, rock-style drumming and Nachoff hardening his tone to post-bop, with squeezed split tones and squeals. With the string quartet mediating between rococo and staccato, Black pummeling his kit almost overcomes a final return to impressionism by the strings.

Ostensibly inspired by Berg and Schoenberg, “Whorls “is more austere, with polytonal phrasing built up from the strings. But just as it seems the splayed tones and silences are going to create a desolate nocturne, Nachoff’s saxophone tone makes the results inappropriately gentle as if he was Paul Desmond.

Despite livelier rim shots from Black, wailing lower pitches and measured stopping from Helias, and occasional tongue stops and multiphonics from the saxophonist, overriding string harmonics coupled with mellow reed solos from Nachoff prevent many tunes from igniting. Just as it appears as if an angular fiddles and sax détente is going to arrive, the artful prettiness of the violins is asserted. Wreathing contrapuntal lines in dignified violin-viola-cello synchronization almost push a few pieces into film soundtrack territory.

While Black sometimes uses ratamacues and rebounds to expose his inner John Bonham and Nachoff occasionally honks on tenor, the overall placidity of the string set and the soprano lines reduce MAGIC NUMBERS’s chances of being more than a pleasant collection of interludes.

Maybe Nachoff should have recruited his string section from the Apple? Certainly, when violinists Katt Hernandez and Jean Cook, violist Ljova and cellist Audrey Chan face off with Tsahar and Nakatani there’s no hint of background schmaltz. “Unmoving” and “The Epistemology of Loss” highlight how, rather than being treated as an afterthought, strings can be fully integrated into the action.

The first track begins with clanking and rubbing that is as likely to come from the ribs and belly of the fiddles as from Nakatani’s percussion arsenal. Meanwhile, as Tsahar squeezes altissimo split tones and growled multiphonics from his reed, the bee-busy strings splash and slash high and low-pitched textures around him, creating a contrapuntal counter-melody. Fading to pregnant silence, the 16 strings provide an undertone of squealing pulsations as Tsahar’s timbres accelerate to howling overblowing. Although the others’ tempo quickens, you can still hear his abstract reed-biting on top. Meanwhile Nakatani’s walloped polyrhythms intersect with the other two sections.

More atmospheric and forbidding, “The Epistemology of Loss” features string oscillations and prolonged cymbal echoes that eventually subside for alp-horn-like echoing from Tsahar’s darkening tenor sax tone. Soon, like spirits in a haunted house, the dissonant strings are fluttering, adding sul tasto and sul ponticello squeals behind reed bites. Eventually, melded bass clarinet and fortissimo cello slurs round out the improvisation.

Other tunes feature prolonged col legno interface from the strings, the percussionist shaking tam tams, rattling, popping and snapping his drum tops and at one point producing a martial bass drum thump. Allowing the fiddles plus to snake discordantly through the compositions, at points the reedist inverts his role to provide an ostinato to the strings. More challenging than Nachoff’s CD, SOLITUDE is also more individualistic, with a foreground role created for the KJLA String quartet.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Solitude: 1. Love Is 2. Unmoving 3. Sand Between a Toe 4. The Epistemology of Loss 5. Of Amazing Most Now 6. Blue Sun 7. Falling 8. By and By 9. Solitude

Personnel: Solitude: Assif Tsahar (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet); Tatsuya Nakatani (percussion) plus the KJLA String Quartet: Katt Hernandez and Jean Cook (violins); Ljova (viola) and Audrey Chan (cello)

Track Listing: Magic: 1. There & Back 2. To Solar Pizza 3. How Post-Modern of Me 4. October5. Branches 6. Circles & Waves 7. Whorls 8. Sun-Day

Personnel: Magic: Quinsin Nachoff (soprano and tenor saxophones); Mark Helias (bass); Jim Black (drums) plus Nathalie Bonin and Noémi Racine Gaudreault (violins); Jean René (viola) and Julie Trudeau (cello)