January 1, 2022
Nick Fraser Quartet
If There Were No Opposites
ezz-thetics CD 1034
Fundacja Sluchaj FSR 18.2020
Using the distinctive timbres of a cello as part of an improvised music session can often be rewarding because of the string instrument’s versatility. Prominent as part of the front line or in the rhythm section, its ultimate role depends on the flexibility of the player and the group in which is situated. Fortunately, the cellists featured here are as adaptable as are both bands.
Interesting enough each quartet disc also features three locals who often play together and one out-of-towner, in both cases a reeds player. American saxophonist Tony Malaby on If There Were No Opposites and Norwegian alto saxophonist and clarinetist Frode Gjerstad on Tales From. Both have recorded extensively in many contexts, at times with other players featured here. If There Were No Opposites for instance built around some of Toronto most accomplished exploratory players: drummer Nick Fraser, bassist Rob Clutton and cellist Andrew Downing. Gjerstad’s associates are all Americans who have worked with numerous international improvisers: trombonist Steve Swell, bassist William Parker and cellist Fred /Lonberg-Holm.
With drums rather than trombone in the mix the Canadian session is more formally balanced and is also designed to highlight Fraser’s writing. Like many drummer-composers he possesses architectural sense, not overemphasizing the rhythmic aspects, but working out undulating lines that take advantage of each player’s individuality. Malaby’s two horns are an asset since he can emphasize slippery soprano runs, sometimes in tandem with cello strokes, as easily as replicating tough tenor tones that lock in with a walking bass line and drum rebounds.
The former horn is emphasized on tracks like “The Fashion Show”, where spiccato string scratches set up pinched yowls from the soprano saxophone that evolves to a trilling swing section following lighter plucks from Clutton. Defining coloration is provided by Downing’s pinched squeaks as Malaby’s whorls and curlicue blowing are balanced by drum pops. Both horns come into play on “Table 49, The Rex Hotel, Toronto” which migrates from soprano squeaks, string swells and drum echoes at the top to a series of percussion clouts and ruffs that cuts through the murky exposition to reveal a new variation. Based on reed slurps and dual arco expansions it makes the narrative less metrical, just as heavy thickness from the toughens the exposition, By the finale swift plucks and pops from the cello and bass re-establish movement as Malaby’s modulated tenor solo relates back to the introduction by filling in those reed textures missing from his initial entrance.
Other tracks, especially the pure improvisations, allow more scope for unusual techniques and unique tuning, with reed squeals, wood-string resonations from Downing and Clutton and positioned paradiddles and hard ruffs from the drummer. But the defining emphasis overall is on maintaining the proper balance among themes and solos to profoundly express the composer’s ideas.
More closely attuned to the free improvising that Gjerstad was almost Norway’s singular proponent of for many years, Tales From is looser and oriented towards group composition rather than a single vision. Plus, the cellist’s use of electronics, Parker’s occasional sounding of different horns ands Swell’s dynamic brass blasts provides more freedom for expression. But the quartet members are sophisticated enough with the form to not abandon structure all together.
Swell’s brassy squalls and bites as well as Gjerstad’s slippery smears and flutter tonguing set up the parameters of the improvisations as early as the first track. Later the concentrated arco sweep of both bass and cello add to the polyphony. By “The Lie” the strategy is confirmed, with strident reed blasts mixing with brass plunger spawls which gradually slither downwards to multiply the expelled tones. As a thickened double bass ostinato provides the bottom, thin cello slices add to the broken tones as the theme sweeps to an unsettling climax.
This paradigm is followed through the remaining four tracks. With much of the material played vivace, presto and staccato, scratches and sweeps from Lonberg-Holm are particularly noticeable throughout as are Swell’s vocalized asides and Gjerstad’s sometimes strident clarinet tone. Cooperation between Parker’s measured plucks and trombone triple tonguing is another feature as are reed screeches mated with pizzicato cello resonations.
With the concluding “The Immolation” moving through buzzing splatters consisting of truculent cello slides and guttural blasts from the trombonist plus undulating clarinet tone and a walking bass overlay it’s “The Take” that provides the penultimate climatic take on the CD program. During its polyphonic expansion, woody clarinet vibrations and segmented brass slide power operate in dual counterpoint, moving confidently from high to low pitches. At the same time steadying usually bowed horizontal motif s from both string players undulate decisively below to knit the horn vamps and string fragments into a linear climax.
Sessions expressing varied colors and rhythms, it’s the partnerships between each cellist and the other musicians’ sounded tinctures that make these discs memorable.
Track Listing: If: 1. Improvisation (Part 1) 2. Sketch #50 3. Shoe Dance 4. Table 49, The Rex Hotel, Toronto 5. The Bulldog And The Capricorn 6. The Fashion Show 7. Improvisation (Part 2)
Personnel: If: Tony Malaby (soprano and tenor saxophones); Andrew Downing (cello); Rob Clutton (bass) and Nick Fraser (drums)
Track Listing: Tales: 1. The Boneyard 2. The Lie 3. The Bold 4. The Belly 5. The Take 6. The Immolation
Personnel: Tales: Steve Swell (trombone); Frode Gjerstad (alto saxophone, Bb clarinet): Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello, electronics) and William Parker bass, tuba, cornet, flutes)