Frank Gratkowski/Sebi Tramontana

Live at Španski Borci
Leo Records CD LR 779

Christiane Bopp/Jean-Luc Petit

L’écorce et la salive

Fou Records FR CD-19

Like Karl Marx’s spectre of Communism that was purportedly haunting Europe in the 19th Century, the apparition that is Jazz still makes its presence felt when dealing with self-proclaimed European improvised music. Although elevated instrumental techniques plus intellectual theories about aleatoricism enter into the musical mix, like permanent apparitions Jazz concepts are unavoidable.

The idea is illustrated fully on these notable duets by two sets of sophisticated improvisers. Over the course of the 15 tracks that make up Live at Španski Borci, German reedist Frank Gratkowski and Italian trombonist Sebi Tramontana display a familiarity with the Jazz idiom, honed during collaborations with masters ranging from Simon Nabatov to Misha Mengelberg. But this Jazz sensibility is the equivalent of a sophisticated tailor adding modern touches to a bespoke suit; they’re used sparingly and uniquely. Manufacturing more austere musical garments, two French players, trombonist Christiane Bopp and Jean-Luc Petit, who snags both ends of the scale playing contrabass clarinet and sopranino saxophone, dedicate their duets to extended sound technique which stretch the definition of their instruments’ ranges. Quixotically by striving to skirt Jazz influences, they inadvertently confirm Jazz’s octopus-like reach over all modern music.

Dealing with the Gratkowski and Tramontana partnership first, in a way the two perform the musical variant of Mazzini’s and Bismarck’s plans for the unification(s) of Italy and Germany. Like adding the attributes of different city states together into a cohesive whole, various techniques, tempos, pitches and strategies are distinctively melded. Able to sources textures from bass clarinet, Bb clarinet and alto saxophone, Gratkowski can snort furiously at one point and trill sweetly at the next. But extensions such as tongue slaps and irregular vibrations are given shape and monitored by Tramontana’s measured chromatics as he constantly steadies the narratives. Throughout, the majority of the duets suggest a medical caduceus with sonic serpents wrapping themselves around one another. Some interactions like those on “Time and Space” can be harsh and unyielding; there are other tracks like “Singer” which true to its title offers harmonies so mellow and melodic that it’s tantamount to a Free Jazz Tony Bennett-Diana Krall love song.

Other tunes, such as “You’re Tough” and “Daydream” are more distinctly experimental, with trombone grace notes stretched rubber-band-like tauter to match reed snarls so that Gratkowski not only escalates his tone, but is driven to hit two notes at once. More of the same appears with “Daydream”, which actually sounds tougher than the previous selection. Here the blending results in a mass that’s distilled from, whines, slurs and a few yowls. The CD’s latter set of duets, actually recorded earlier, inject more humor into the mix. The alto saxophonist’s broad octave jumps are prominent on “Empathy”, and this empathy, expressed with snarling brass timbres, add to the excitement while containing its danger like a strapped in gondola in a roller coaster ride. In fact all the instrumental chortling, whistling and narrative twisting on “Despedida” and “Homage” makes it appear as if they two are engaging in private musical jokes while subverting the exposition (s).

Less – if at all –oriented towards humor and more along the lines of two scientists working in a sound laboratory, L’écorce et la salive (or bark and saliva) suggests its empirical basis. Considering that Bopp studied with improvising trombonist Yves Robert and the self-taught Petit worked with bassist Kent Carter and composes for the theatre, theory is often put into practice on these seven tracks, with practice subsequently leading to new avenues of research. A piece such as “L' infini sur les levres” for example features flat-line air blowing and rugged theme variations from the trombonist as Jekyll-and-Hyde-like Petit moves from bent-note squeals on sopranino to thicker darker notes from the contrabass clarinet. The effect is like watching sailors manoeuvring on the shifting deck of a boat in choppy waters, simultaneously maintaining a course and steering forward. Interspaced with descriptive silences, the wriggling interface between the two relies on empathy and tightrope-walker-like empathy. Should Bopp suddenly turn to alpine-horn-like airy vibrations on “Une image dans les voix” for instance, than it’s up to Petit to remain earthbound and focused on thematic consistency. If on the other hand it’s Petit who outputs reedy rebounds and sharp tongue slaps from his sopranino that threaten to blast off into unfathomable musical space on “L' ombre s’efface”, then it’s Bopp’s wavering plunger notes and tremolo pulsing that haul the narrative to sympathetic attachment. Even the concluding title track, where every note seems to be masticated and sampled from all pitch extensions available from the instruments, the pragmatic trumps the unattainable, so that chalumeau clarinet tones and trombone plunger expansions interlock like a ball-and-socket to confirm congruence if not outright connection.

Both duos discs demonstrates how much can be attained with a simple brass-reed partnership that allows experimentation as well as exploration. Those who want theory to include more than a soupsçon of Jazz excitement may gravitate more towards the Gratkowski and Tramontana set however.

-Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live: 1. Revelation 2. Spirited 3. Time and Space 4. Dancer 5. Singer 6. You’re Tough 7 Series of Dramatic Events 8. Daydream 9. Deceiver 10. Nocturne 11, Enthusiasm 12. Empathy 13. Despedida 14. Homage 15. Alacrity

Personnel: Live: Sebi Tramontana (trombone) and Frank Gratkowski (bass clarinet, Bb clarinet, alto saxophone)

Track Listing: L’écoce: 1. Une image dans les voix 2. Au pays des plis 3. L' infini sur les levres 4. L' ombre du gel 5. Dans ce bruit d' air 6. L' ombre s’efface 7. L' ecorce et la salive

Personnel: L’écoce: Christiane Bopp (trombone) and Jean-Luc Petit (contrabass clarinet and sopranino saxophone)