Frank Gratkowski/Sebi Tramontana

Live at Španski Borci
Leo Records CD LR 779

Frank Gratkowski/Simon Nabatov

Mirthful Myths

Leo Records CD LR 785

By Ken Waxman

During a nearly three decade career, German saxophonist/clarinetist Frank Gratkowski has performed in configurations ranging from raucous large ensembles to hushed solo discs. Some of his most personal and profound sessions though have been in duos, with these CDs providing recent evidence. In improvised music, familiarity often breeds eminence and both his playing partners are long time associates. Like an actor who has a quiet stage career as well as heralded film appearances, Gratkowski’s affiliation with Russian-American pianist Simon Nabatov is well-known dating back to his ‘90s membership in several of the Köln-based pianist’s bands. Although the association with Munich-based Italian trombonist Sebi Tramontana is almost as long lasting, Live at Španski Borci is one of the few times they’re recorded.

The product of two different Ljubljana concerts, Live’s 15 tracks highlight the unique partnership where a cohesive whole is produced on each tune since both players instinctively and intimately know each others’ strategies. Able to sources textures from bass clarinet, Bb clarinet and alto saxophone, Gratkowski snorts furiously at many points and trills sweetly at others. Yet forays into extended techniques including protracted tongue slaps and irregular vibrations are monitored and given shape by Tramontana’s measured chromatics as the brass man constantly steadies the narratives. Throughout, most duets resemble a medical caduceus with sonic serpents wrapping themselves around one another. Some interactions, like those on “Time and Space”, are harsh and unyielding. Others like “Singer”, true to its title, offers harmonies so mellow that the tune could be the equivalent to a Tony Bennett-Diana Krall love song.

Experimentation isn’t ignored however. The skill expressed by two players at the top of their game comes forward on “You’re Tough”, as trombone grace notes are stretched rubber-band-like tauter and tauter to match reed snarls which not only escalates in speed but with multiphonics. “Daydream”, which actually sounds tougher than the previous selection, is more of the same. Timbral blending results in a dense program that’s distilled from whines, slurs and a few yowls. Another set of duets is more notable for humor though. The alto saxophonist’s broad octave jumps, prominent on “Empathy”, highlight joyous free-form possibility, while the trombonist adds to the excitement with constant slide motions. “Despedida” and “Homage” are also different from the other tracks since it’s as if the two are engaging in private musical jokes, subverting expectations, while preserving the narratives.

Gratkowski and Nabatov who first recorded together as part of the latter’s quartet on Nature Morte, in 1999, play even more atonally on Mirthful Myths. Each subsequent track becomes more abstract and microtonal, with Nabatov using inner piano string plucks and vibrations as often as sweeping Cecil Taylor-like keyboard dynamics; and Gratkowski spilling unexpected sharp timbres onto the narrative as frequently as the he blends with the piano accompaniment. Like sit-com writers who aren’t comfortable writing feature films however, at 22½ minutes, the introductory “Three Tamed Furies” is the duo’s only misstep. Moving from somber to spirited during the performance, both devote too much time to brazen extended techniques only reaching a satisfying pas de deux of jittery pianism and sighing trills at the finale. More notable are the five subsequent tunes, where one overriding motif is tried out for size, examined every which way like a stone under a jeweler’s loupe, and leads to the next sequence. “Progress of Notus” is a lesson in keyboard control, as Nabatov rolls textures from inner strings at a crawling tempo eventually blending with Gratkowski’s measured note cascades. “Eirene All Around” turns string scrubbing and reed splutters into vibrant story telling. Most intimately “Cloud Gatherer Awakes” reflects how intense piano multiphonics and reed bites with the sharpness of a platinum-tipped drill can be inveigled into a squiggly tune that swings enough to make one yearn for its extension. Jazz duos are one ways in which sophisticated musicians demonstrate their interactive dexterity. Gratkowski, as well as Tramontana and Nabatov confirm that skill on these discs.

Track Listing: Mirthful: 1. Three Tamed Furies 2, Cloud Gatherer Awakes 3. Eirene All Around 4. Pan’s Wanderlust 5. Progress of Notus 6. At the Beginning

Personnel: Mirthful: Frank Gratkowski (bass clarinet, Bb clarinet, alto saxophone) and Simon Nabatov (piano)

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)

\—For The New York City Jazz Record June 2017