Braxton/Fonda; Rodrigo Amado; TECK String Quartet: Strings & Reeds

Clifford Allen By

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There is an aspect of instrumentation alluded to by Peter Brötzmann in the title of his tune "Alto Lightning In A Violin Sky, an homage to departed fellow saxophonist Jimmy Lyons. The sound of reeds and strings, whether in unison or scrabbling against one another, has a common quality. Maybe it's the distant relationship between reeds, horsehair and wood and their respective tactility and ultimate diversity.

A purely reed-and-string lineup isn't exactly common in jazz, though there are a number of precedents for the discs considered here: Eric Dolphy and Richard Davis; Sam Rivers and Dave Holland; Evan Parker and Barry Guy are among the short list. Expanding to a flock of string players, saxophonist Charles Tyler's second ESP date, Eastern Man Alone, featured Dave Baker's cello as the other lead voice and two bassists carrying the cross-rhythms.

Between Lisbon's Clean Feed and the sub label European Echoes run by saxophonist Rodrigo Amado, three new installments in this small field present a healthy dose of unique listening.

Anthony Braxton and Joe Fonda
Duets 1995
Clean Feed

Reedman Anthony Braxton and bassist Joe Fonda have been improvising partners since the 1980s, and Fonda's prodigious technique and rock-solid time have anchored Braxton's recordings of standards, among other projects. Duets 1995 reissues a long-unavailable session originally cut for the Konnex label, featuring three compositions each by Braxton and Fonda, as well as chestnuts "All Of You and "Autumn In New York. Braxton is no stranger to the format, having recorded duets with bassists Dave Holland and Mario Pavone (also a Braxton regular, he and Fonda shared duties in New Haven's CMIF collective).

Though Braxton is a composer, and one who is able to extrapolate well beyond the capabilities of his own arsenal, a pared-down setting such as Duets 1995 puts him squarely in the realm of an improvisatory role—a player. "All Of You recalls the duet with Holland on Five Pieces 1975's "You Stepped Out Of A Dream, alto building into cascades of staccato droplets over Fonda's outlining thrum. Rather than the unbridled facility that characterizes such youthful performances as "Donna Lee (on the America LP of the same name) Braxton is measured in his approach, using filled spaces as a device rather than the complete motive for a solo. There's certainly fire and energy, but in concert with Fonda, there's a relentless swing aligning his playing with Dolphy and Lee Konitz.

It's true Braxton may hear a tune in quintuple-time, but he's able to match it with the meaty real-time impulses of wood and string. It's a rare instance that allows one to hear such unfettered flow of ideas, in the sense that one can hear Braxton's improvisational mind at work—not that he's by any means predictable, and his rapid-fire assemblage of phrases in keeping with a tune's structure is a hearty challenge for any sparring partner, Fonda's steady physicality excellently matching Braxton's extraordinary vocabulary.

Rodrigo Amado
European Echoes

Surface, the second release on Portuguese saxophonist Rodrigo Amado's European Echoes imprint (ostensibly a sub-label of Clean Feed), joins him with the curious trio of violinist Carlos Zingaro, cellist Tomas Ulrich and bassist Ken Filiano for thirteen original vignettes. Filiano, noted for his contributions to the Los Angeles improvisers' scene, is also a sometime member of Amado's Lisbon Improvisation Players, and Zingaro, Amado and Filiano comprised the trio of The Space Between (Clean Feed, 2003). Tomas Ulrich has worked with bassist Dominic Duval and violinist Jason Kao Hwang in a number of weighty string sessions, so this lineup is not exactly an aesthetically foreign entity.

"Uncommon Places begins with low baritone, bass, and cello rumble somewhat reminiscent of brassman Roswell Rudd's arrangement of Bill Harris' "Everywhere before it turns somber and romantic, rather than into a rugged blues. There's a liquid swing to Amado's alto on "The City, but as each instrument seems to be in a slightly different tempo, the bustle's flow is only an illusion, each component slightly off even as a union can be distantly inferred. Zingaro's violin is the ringer, teasing out the dissonance from Amado and Ulrich as Filiano keeps pace.

Yet although there's a potential for the proceedings to skitter and pull apart, the pieces are just as often delicately reflective, rejoicing in the grey-blue canvas of husky low tones. On "Calculators, Zingaro's broken metronome and Amado's alto harmonics provide the measurement for wood knocks and string thumps, proving that urban racket may follow its own order.

Dedicated to the ambiguous images of photographer Stephen Shore, Surface provides more than mere snapshots.

TECK String Quartet
TECK String Quartet
Clean Feed

In 2006, the trio of Filiano, Ulrich and Zingaro joined guitarist Elliott Sharp in what was initially a subversive take on the string quartet combination. The TECK String Quartet, as it is known, is now ostensibly a working project, and the nine collective improvisations here are its first recorded document. If the "T-C-K are perhaps more reigned in by Amado's compositions on Surface, here the metronomic irregularities are far more pronounced.

Adding Sharp's steel-stringed acoustic guitar and National Tricone steel guitar to the ensemble makes for a curious tonal range, for as cello and violin thrash out narrow arcs and draw sinuous range, Sharp echoes front-porch Southern gothics and John Cageian preparedness, a metallic otherworldliness among a landscape of ponticello slurs, triple-stops and subtonal scrabble. There isn't as much broken Americana as on the guitarist's other Clean Feed release, Sharp? Monk? Sharp! Monk!, for he's in the company of three players overturning European string music, but Sharp nevertheless provides a dustily anarchic foil to the swoops and hollers of bass, cello and violin. Sometimes, as on "Ripples, Sharp and the trio sound at war with one another; at others, when Filiano's weight is buoyed by steel-string rattle and whispering harmonics, TECK are a tense collective dynamic.

Composed or let loose, Zingaro, Filiano and Ulrich are accompanied by their own steam, and that steam is fully ahead. Not entirely chamber improvisation, these three discs offer a wide range of moods as "outside" as they are instrumentally defined.

Tracks and Personnel

Duets 1995

Tracks: All Of you; Relentlessness; Out Of The Cage; Something From The Past; Composition 168+147; Composition 136; Composition 173; Autumn In New York.

Personnel: Anthony Braxton: C-Melody and alto saxophones, clarinet, contrabass clarinet; Joe Fonda: bass.


Tracks: Uncommon Places; Natural Bridge; The City; Luzzara; Calculators; Room 28; Surface Suite: Eat; Talk; Look; Sleep; Walk; Trails End; Art Is Truth.

Personnel: Rodrigo Amado: alto and baritone saxophones; Carlos Zingaro: violin; Tomas Ulrich: cello; Ken Filiano: bass.

TECK String Quartet

Tracks: Levitation; Intuitive Reduction.; If Not Now, When; Ripples; Swapfield; Memory Hanging; Hard Evolution; Still Not Easy; As Hard As It Comes.

Personnel: Tomas Ulrich: cello; Elliott Sharp: acoustic and steel guitars; Carlos Zingaro: violin; Ken Filiano: bass.


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