Though he's played with some prime-time bandleadersincluding pianists Bill Carrothers and Mark Soskin, saxophonist Gary Smulyan and guitarist Kurt RosenwinkelSwiss bassist Fabian Gisler is a new name to me. Backyard Poets
is his debut album as leader, and it's a pleasure to make his acquaintance, and those too of his colleagues Henrik Walsdorff, saxophones, Colin Vallon, bass, and John Schroder, drums.
Without any prior knowledge of the musicians, and with no clues provided by the studiously Absurdist liner notes written by critic Tom Gsteiger, the band photo on the inside cover of Backyard Poets suggests a quartet of wild-eyed and tousled late-twenty somethings who would relish strangling Diderot's proverbial last king with the entrails of the last priest.
Maybe they would, but the music suggests otherwise. Though it has its moments of tumult, particularly on the final three tunes (recorded live a few months prior to the rest of the album), the predominant vibe on Backyard Poets is gentle, elliptical, understated and pretty. Six of the tracks are group improvisations, and four are based on themes composed individually by Vallon, Gisler and Walsdorff, but there's no clear demarcation between them.
Balladic group improvisations make up the first seven tracks of the album, with Vallon's "Sans Un Mot" containing the only pre-composed theme. The group is fleet-footed, softly spoken and close-miked. Walsdorff favors the treble register on both saxophones, with a Lee Konitz-like purity of sound and a preference for sustained tones which float like little cotton wool clouds over the piano, bass and drums. Vallon spends as much time inside the piano as he does at the keyboard, variously plucking, stroking, scratching and dampening the strings. Schroder spends most of his time on brushes rather than sticks, his nimble snare drum flurries as impressionistic as the saxophone and piano. Gisler himself mostly elects to fulfill a traditional bass role, supporting and interacting with the other players rather than hogging the limelight, and he approaches the bass as a melody instrument as much as an engine of propulsion.
The final three tracks, recorded at the Bird's Eye Jazz Club in Basel in June 2005, find the group cooking at a higher temperature, but still with a refreshing moderation. Walsdorff's "Starsky's Delight" and "Neues Stuck" inhabit territory reminiscent of saxophonist John Coltrane's classic quartet on its early Impulse! sessions. Walsdorff adds finely controlled overtones and multiphonics to the mix, and Vallon comes on at times like McCoy Tyner at his most two-fisted and intense. Gisler's "Freedom Speech" is in a similar groove, but less intense and more reminiscent of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders' band a few years later on the astral-jazz masterpiece Tauhid (Impulse, 1967).
Backyard Poets doesn't leap out of the speakers and grab you by the throat. But the effort to go out halfway and meet it is richly rewarded. An impressive and satisfying debut.