Gratowski / Graewe / Lovens
Meniscus / 007
Frank Gratkowski / reeds, Georg Graewe / piano, Paul Lovens / percussion
Duval / Heward / McPhee
Leo / CDLR295
Dominic Duval / bass, John Heward / percussion, Joe McPhee / soprano sax
That Georg Graewe is an underappreciated genius seems uncontroversial. His off-kilter piano-playing is wonderful wherever you chance to hear it, deeply permeated as it always is with his own, utterly unique and fully-formed musical personality. He most closely resembles Marilyn Crispell, but seems more eccentric, a maverick voice indeed.
It’s a great pleasure, then, to hear him in such fine company as this. Lovens is a natural partner for him, another specialist in seasick rhythms, explosions and odd, unexpected lacunae. The kindred spirits for what must be one of the most challenging rhythm sections around for reedsman Frank Gratkowski.
Not that Gratkowski treats this gig much like a conventional free jazz blow. That’s just what it is, of course, but the European sensibilities of Graewe and Lovens help make this ensemble music as much as the kind of stratified jazz which forms the deep structure of everything here (“Green Fuse” being its clearest manifestation).
The only niggle with this is that the dynamics are varied indeed, with all four pieces starting hesitantly, lulling the listener into turning up the volume only to be jolted back to the hi fi when things get cooking. In all of this, Graewe seems too quiet and the sound generally a little fuzzy, but maybe that’s just how they sounded on the night: it’s a live recording (from January 1999) and the lack of studio-quality normalisation is more than made up for by the energy and commitment of these four extended jams.
Undersound is a much louder record, literally and metaphorically. Rather than exploratory feeling-out of the musical space, Duval, Heward and McPhee tend to start their pieces with a bang. McPhee is a stupendous saxophonist, a second-generation New Thing man who growls and squeaks his way through preachin’ melodies and clever twists on his bebop heritage. Fitting in somewhere between Shepp and Gayle, it’s easy to ignore players like McPhee or brand them as merely “transitional”, but he’s a superior musician who demands attention on his own merit. Put this record nest to almost anything by the far-more-often-lauded David Murray and the facts speak for themselves.
You can’t go wrong with Duval on bass, of course, and his muscular lines and great textural work give McPhee something exciting to work with; valuable Duval solos top and tail the disk, too. Drummer Heward, like Duval, seems to have a handle on both jazz and improv forms, although jazz is what’s dominant here (even more so than the session discussed above), which is as well for him as his free jazz swings and pulses while he can seem a bit lost in more open, pulseless environments.
It’s good to hear people doing this kind of small group free jazz. That’s not meant in a patronising way, as if it were surprising to see people “still” doing it. No, it’s good because this kind of music still has a great deal of life in it, and when done well it rarely sounds dated. These two releases are very contemporary and are, of course, showcases for some fantastic talents, whom one gets to hear in detail. The second of these disks is especially recommended, but both are excellent. Richard Cochrane