Mein Freund der Baum
Wide Ear Records WER 026

Tree Ear

Witches Butter

Clean Feed CF 438 CD

With unusual configurations making up reed/strings/percussion trios, these two cooperative bands forge unique identities while reshaping the improvisationary thicket. Each stretches the definition a bit, pressing closer to expected swing at spots or abandoning it for sequences of pure dissonance elsewhere. While conventional balanced combos like these commonly include a saxophone, a double bass and drums, both replace the bass with the guitar and emphasize the bass clarinet.

Each ensemble is also a mixture of the experienced and young veterans. Tree Ear for instance is guided by veteran American drummer Gerry Hemingway, who now lives in Luzern, plus two Swiss improvisers, guitarist Manuel Troller, also part of the band Le Pot; and Sebastian Strinning, who plays both tenor saxophne and bass clarinet, and has worked with, among others Fredy Studer and Harald Kimmig. Paul Lovens, the German drummer on the other CD is also a veteran having spent decades with Alexander von Schippenbach/Evan Parker and many other groups. A member of Die Enttäuschung, German bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall also has a relationship with von Schippenbach; while Swiss guitarist Florian Stoffner has worked with Hans Koch and Manuel Mengis among others.

Reflecting his reed mastery Mahall dominates many of Mein Freund der Baum’s tracks with a technique that’s equally perceptive whether chirping treetop-high pitches or vibrating woody lows. Mercurial he’s as proficient puffing and squeaking on an approximation of pinched so-called insect music on “Mein”, as he is leaping from the coloratura to the altissimo register of his horn while yelping on “Freund”. Lovens who has cooperated with masters of that genre since the early 1970s responds in kind on the first track, limiting himself to clanks, creaks and clashes that are more often felt than heard. Picking up these clues, Stoffner’s crisp flanges and raw string pressure adds a quivering affirmation to the program. However the trio’s sequences harden and move upwards in pitch to showcase individual ideas by the track’s end. “Freund” picks up on Free Jazz explosiveness however as the clarinetist’s split tones and snorts, coupled with the guitarist’s concentrated note bending and the drummer’s arrhythmic yet connective slaps and taps suggest a 21st Century New Thing.

While “Baum” provides the appropriate resonating finale to this live concert, the band’s showcase is obviously the over 22-minute “Der”. A descriptive meld between Stoffner’s foreshortened string nipping and Mahall’s brash peeping and staccato bites exists to the extent that tremolo exuberance is as evident as cerebral timbre examination. Midway, guitar and clarinet timbres are almost indistinguishable. Then, after a brief silence, the performance picks up speed and intensity with licks sounding as if they come from a detuned guitar and the clarinetist’s staccato scoops and bites, while the drummer beats and slaps the track towards a clashing finish.

With his experience which goes back to the mid-1970s, Hemingway too is often the rhythmic glue that holds together the trio’s speedy transfers from non-idiomatic to idiomatic sequences and back again. Sometimes the transitions depend on Strinning’s choice of instruments. For instance the moderato and mellow lightness of “Third Man Walking” is maintained through chalumeau bass clarinet tones, coupled with tick-tock drumming and accommodating string echoes. In contrast, “Witches Butter” includes hard and heavy tenor saxophone squalls plus corrosive guitar flanges. Once the piece accelerates with staccato flutter tonguing and tremolo string licks, balance emanates from the drummer’s hip-hop patterning.

Similar showdowns and resonations echoes throughout Witches Butter’s seven tracks, For instance Strinning’s sometimes lisping saxophone lines connect to inflated drum pumps and guitar buzzes for a ballad-like rendition; or a sequence of intersected reed snorts, percussion pops and near-Metal guitar twangs will bump and grind to burning intensity. There’s also a sequence on “Drag Light” where Troller’s string cries could almost emanate from a steel guitar, although the guitarist’s flat-line narrative is subverted by a loud, railway crossing signal sounds from Hemingway, forcing the guitar patterns to become even quieter and fade away. An ending perfectly suited for the program, “Reraise” moves form hushed saxophone and reed potter-patter with string sizzles proving needed contrast to triple-tonguing, drum thumping and guitar buzzing to sign off with a vigorous finale.

Even with unexpected instrumental partnerships from trios like this, the resulting elation is created by melding the participants’ collective skills and ideas.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Mein: 1. Mein 2. Freund 3. Der 4. Baum

Personnel: Mein: Rudi Mahall (bass clarinet); Florian Stoffner (guitar) and Paul Lovens (drums)

Track Listing: Witches: 1. Range of Hands 2. Third Man Walking 3. Witches Butter 4. Big Blind 5. Drag Light 6. Kill Button 7. Reraise

Personnel: Witches: Sebastian Strinning (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet); Manuel Troller (guitar) and Gerry Hemingway (drums, voice)