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Frank Gratkowski: Palae, Wake and Live at the Musik Triennale Koln

John Sharpe By

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Achim Kaufman/ Frank Gratkowski/ Wilbert de Joode
Leo Records

Frank Gratkowski/ Chris Brown/ William Winant
Red Toucan Records

James Choice Orchestra
live at the musik triennale koln
Leo Records

German reedman Frank Gratkowski has become an increasingly significant presence on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years. Although perhaps best known for his quartet with drummer Gerry Hemingway, such currency has seen an increase in collaborators, with his adventurous alto saxophone and clarinets in cohort with Herb Robertson, Ray Anderson, Ken Vandermark, Muhal Richard Abrams and Peter Brötzmann, among others. These three live discs present him in diverse company, idioms and locations.

Palaë is the third outing by his co-operative improvising trio with pianist Achim Kaufmann and bassist Wilbert de Joode and the pick of this bunch. Judicious selection and programming of seven pieces from three dates on a 2006 European tour delineates a trajectory from indeterminate sound towards almost overtly jazz influenced momentum. All three partake in spacious conversation in which extended technique sometimes belies the instrumental source. Gratkowski has by now achieved such mastery of his chosen axes that he adroitly summons whatever sound or texture seems most appropriate, from nonchalant lumberings on contrabass clarinet to sustained whistles and multiphonic trills on clarinet or alto sax. "Storeys Above" is abstract and mysteriously built from ghostly sighs and wafts of air, while on the powerful "the Heart of All," De Joode unearths a riff which anchors Kaufmann's inside/outside piano and Gratkowski's multiphonics.

Traversing similar terrain, but with even more of an experimental bent, Wake finds Gratkowski in the company of pianist/electronics pioneer Chris Brown and percussionist William Winant. Timbre and noise are more integral to this unit's sound, with the live electronics central to the overall effect. Culled from a 2007 concert, the five long pieces, with even the shortest over ten minutes, each cover a lot of ground. Consequently the payoff is more hit and miss than the European trio. When it works, as in the wonderful "Parallax" where chiming bells and pealing piano envelop saxophone tones sustained like a distant foghorn, and parts of the 25-minute opener "Slide," such as the meditative interlude for clunky piano and squeaking bass clarinet, then there is a soaring collective cohesion, but elsewhere the hums, blurts and susurrations don't achieve the same synergy.

Improvisation also features strongly with the James Choice Orchestra's Live at Musik Triennale Köln, but within the confines of heavily new music- influenced composition. Recorded in his home base of Köln, Gratkowski's 21-minute "Pyrsos" is one of four extended works from each of the leaders of the 23-strong International band (named as a word play on favorite author James Joyce). In two parts, the piece opens with sweeping orchestral textures before fanning out for small group interactions, around Benjamin Weidekamp's excitable clarinet and Udo Moll's garrulous trumpet. As the density of the structure increase, a singer interacts with spoken voice, before the interlocking textures of the through- notated second section. In the liners, three of the four composers highlight the inspiration of Luciano Berio and this disc's prime interest likely resides with those who seek the intersection of contemporary classical music and improv.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: some lanes; a destination farther; on the cold, terrified; storeys above; the ranks; the heart of all; in the face.

Personnel: Achim Kaufmann: piano; Frank Gratkowski: clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, alto saxophone; Wilbert de Joode: bass.


Tracks: Slide; Ambitus; Scrabble; Parallax; Archipelago.

Personnel: Frank Gratkowski: clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone; Chris Brown: piano and live electronics; William Winant: vibraphone, percussion.

live at the musik triennale koln

Tracks: Autoportrait; Pyrsos; Six Chapters in a Rambling Life; Trivial Tribute to L.B.

Personnel: Player Annette Maye: clarinet, bass clarinet; Frank Gratkowski: alto saxophone, contrabass clarinet, composition; Matthias Schubert: tenor saxophone, composition; Norbert Stein: tenor saxophone, composition; Niels Klein: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Michael Heupel: flutes; Benjamin Weidekamp: clarinet; Matthias Mainz: trumpet; Udo Moll: trumpet; Nicolao Valiensi: trombone; Carl Ludwig Hubsch: tuba, composition; Melvyn Poore: tuba; Isis Kruger: voice; Barbara Schachtner: voice; Paolo Alvares: piano; Scott Fields: guitar; Tom Lorenz: vibraphone: Thomas Lehn: synthesizer; Joe Hertenstein: drums; Radek Stawarz: violin; Sue Schlotte: cello; Sebastian Gramss: double bass; Dieter Manderscheid: double bass.


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