Frank Gratkowski And Simon Nabatov Together On Leo

John Eyles By

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Although they both started recording in the mid-eighties, the Moscow-born pianist Simon Nabatov and Hamburg-born saxophonist & clarinetist Frank Gratkowski first recorded together in April 1999 when Gratokwski became a member of Nabatov's quartet (alongside vocalist Phil Minton and trombonist Nils Wogram); recorded at The Loft in Cologne, the resulting album, Nature Morte, was released by Leo Records in 2001, both significant facts as Nabatov and Gratkowski would often play together at the venue, sometimes recording albums for Leo there. Recorded two years apart, the two albums below both feature the pair, and take the tally of such albums well into double figures. Unsurprisingly, both are Leo releases, recorded live at The Loft...

Dance Hall Stories

Recorded in April 2017, Dance Hall Stories has the distinction of introducing a new ensemble to the variety of groupings in which Gratkowski and Nabatov have played together, from duo up to octet; the pair were joined by drummer Dominik Mahnig, who also drums in Nabatov's trio with bassist Stefan Schönegg. Mahnig played on four of the eight tracks, the Gratkowski-Nabatov duo playing alone on the other four. Despite being about half the age of his bandmates here, Mahnig fits right in and gives a good account of himself throughout, making the threesome sound like an established trio.

As its cover art and title suggest, Dance Hall Stories is a concept album centred around the dance hall experience, a point further emphasized by track titles such as "Gradual Enticement" and "Sitting One Out." But, despite the titles, it is worth stressing that the music played on the album was improvised and could never be mistaken for actual dance hall music; while that may be a disappointment to some, it seems likely to come as a relief to far more.

Rather than dance hall music, the players seem more intent on conveying the range of emotions which could accompany a visit to a dance hall—shy reluctance, insecurity, hope, elation, disappointment, and so forth... To convey such a spectrum, Gratkowski employs clarinet, bass clarinet and flute in addition to his alto saxophone, and the music shows considerable variation in tempo and mood from track to track. So, the opener, "Hopeful Glances," begins slowly and tentatively with long, plaintive saxophone notes conjuring up images of an isolated, nervous individual, an image which persists even when the tempo picks up a little. At the other end of the spectrum, the more up-tempo five-and-a-half minute "It's all in the Hips" conveys some of the excitement and enthusiasm of someone for whom dancing has finally clicked, engendering a sense of fun and adventure. Yes, across its forty-nine minutes, this album covers a lot of ground most effectively.

Simon Nabatov
Time Labyrinth

Jumping ahead two years, to April 2019 when Time Labyrinth was recorded, we encounter a totally different grouping, producing a soundscape which bears little resemblance to that above. Tellingly, the album is credited to Simon Nabatov alone. However, in a drummerless septet, Nabatov is the pianist, with composer & sound artist Hans W. Koch on synthesiser and Dieter Manderscheid on double bass, behind a front line of four horns—Gratkowski on reeds, Matthias Schubert on tenor sax, Shannon Barnett on trombone and Melvyn Poore on tuba. The music here was all composed by Nabatov; prompted by the fact that he celebrated his sixtieth birthday in 2019, the six precisely-notated, chamber pieces—with a combined running time of sixty-three minutes—-are based on different ways in which time can be perceived.

The six pieces were all executed with the help of a "digital conductor" which could be seen by each member of the septet. As that suggests, this music is far more controlled and structured than Dance Hall Stories, with horn solos being few and far between, and short interjections being commoner; the opening track, "Waves," typifies this as its ten-minutes-and-forty-seconds contain not one horn solo; instead, it features occasional horn sounds from all four players which are broken and sporadic —like the waves of the title, they rise up, break and then are gone until the next one comes along. Nabatov's piano is the most prominent instrument, leading and guiding the ensemble throughout. Having said that, each horn player is allowed one extended opportunity to shine; in Gratkowski's case, his showcase comes on the track "Reader" where he plays flute throughout, establishing the piece's calm pastoral mood before the arrival of Koch's synthesiser, and a bass solo from Manderscheld maintain the mood.

Despite their differences, the six pieces are best heard together as an integrated whole. Nabatov says that "Time Labyrinth" is the first installment of a larger project called "Changing Perspectives" and he hopes to share the following parts in the near future. On this evidence, that is excellent news.

Tracks and Personnel

Dance Hall Stories

Tracks: Hopeful Glances; Wrong Move Reflected; It's All in the Hips; Slinky; Gradual Enticement; Sitting One Out; Cautious Invitation; Pocket Found.

Personnel: Frank Gratkowski: alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute; Simon Nabatov: piano; Dominik Mahnig: drums (3, 5, 7-8).

Time Labyrinth

Tracks: Waves; Metamorph; Reader; Eight Off; Repeated; Choral.

Personnel: Frank Gratkowski: alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute; Martin Schubert: tenor saxophone; Shannon Barnett: trombone; Melvyn Poore: tuba; Dieter Manderscheld: double bass; Hans W. Koch: synthesiser; Simon Nabatov: piano;

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