Virtuoso German reed specialist Frank Gratkowski enjoys a particularly fertile range of collaborations, settings and directional thrusts. He was back in New York in October, 2009 with a trio that has released three albums during the last six years: Kwast (Konnex, 2004), Unearth (Nuscope, 2005) and Palaë (Leo, 2006). Appearing at Roulette, Gratkowski was joined by pianist Achim Kaufmann and bassist Wilbert de Joode, both of whom hail from the Netherlands. The gig is billed as a session of "improvised chamber music."
Gratkowski elaborates: "There are no predefined rules. What we do is what I call instant composing. The fact of structuring the music instantly is very important. Form is very important for me and very often lacking in improvised music. The other reason for the term 'chamber music' is definitely the instrumentation and the fact that we are playing acoustically."
Gratkowski combines passion and control in his playing, qualities that remain paramount whether he's blowing alto saxophone, clarinet, bass or contrabass clarinet. He possesses a steely precision that channels sonic extremity within clipped or carefully shaped outbursts. Like an outsider extremist with an internalized set of cerebral editing tools, he fine-tunes as he expels spontaneous ideas at a rapid rate. Whether the listener is considering their improvised nature or not, these constructions remain remarkably well-formed.
De Joode will probably be familiar to most aficionados of the Dutch scene, but Achim Kaufmann is much lesser known. "Playing with Achim goes way back to the time I started studying at the Cologne Music Conservatory," says Gratkowski. "Which must be at least 20 to 25 years ago. After playing together for a few years there was a long break and we met again. He asked me to play a duo set with him at SWR [radio] when he got the SWR-Jazz prize in 2002. Achim is, for me, one of the very best musicians I know and he gets better and better all the time!"
On 2006's Palaë, Kaufmann is the least abrasive of the three, stippling and scampering while Gratkowski delves into his deepest range of bass clarinet stomach-lining roughness. De Joode, too, is scraping with a contained violence, dragging his bow harshly, pulling out the very essence of gut-string ruggedness. Kaufmann is all around and in between the other two, pointillistically commenting, with a much lighter voice. Gratkowski can choose to rattle his emissions as though the horn's passageways are clogged and in need of clearance. Together with De Joode, the explored sonorities are extremely low and rounded, as well as being deeply atmospheric.
Gratkowski's improvising partners are legion, but he's managed to form a surprisingly direct working strategy. "I always approach improvisation with others in the same way," he reveals. "I try to connect to the players, to enhance the music. I just listen and try to do things which make the music more interesting."
Gratkowski reveals that this trio still has a backlog of quality recorded items, so the prospect of a fourth album is highly likely. His multitude of outlets can be bewildering, so prolific is Gratkowski's live and recorded output. Just recently, he's been gigging around Russia with the rock-inclined Ruptured Kidney, where he deliberately limits himself to the alto saxophone. Last month, he was touring in Europe with another trio that features Chris Brown (piano/electronics) and William Winant (percussion). Straight after this US tour, Gratkowski will be working on a new music piece for November Music in Holland and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in England. Composing for large ensembles is yet another aspect of Gratkowski's broad expression.
"It's another world," he smiles. "I'm using all kinds of different methods. Sometimes I write on the saxophone, sometimes on the piano. Sometimes I sing something, record it and then transcribe it. Then, modify it. Often, I use a computer. Recently I'm more and more interested in systems and in probabilities. Very often, I use an object-orientated computer programming environment called Open Music, which is developed at IRCAM [the electronic music research studio in Paris]. It's based on the computer language Lisp. In order to program more efficiently, I learned to program the basic thing in code, which took me about a year. I also use the program for spectral analysis of sounds, such as my multiphonics on the alto saxophone, for example. For my orchestra piece 'Pyrsos,' I wrote a very complex program which generated almost all the written parts of the composition."
The new composition will be premiered shortly after Gratkowski's New York gig, at the November Music festival in Holland. "The framework is done and now I have to make music out of all the elements I want to implement in it. It's hard to explain, because it's a complicated process. You collect ideas, then throw away most of them and very often end up somewhere else!"