Une, Deux, Trois: Solo, Duo and Trio Improvisation from Europe


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At one point in time, the term "European Improvisation" meant something quite specific, carrying with it an air of otherness to American jazz audiences, solidarity to European jazz audiences, and presented rarified and sometimes unruly music based on folk, classical and open forms. In the ensuing decades, the world has grown a bit smaller, and intercontinental meetings and aesthetic mergers are commonplace, so much so that "European Improvisation" doesn't quite mean what it once did. Certainly, the history remains and significant figures like pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, saxophonist Evan Parker, reedman Peter Brötzmann and many others remain quite active on the international performing and recording scene.

Three new releases in solo, duo and trio formats represent both "old" and "new" and uniformly valuable music by artists from throughout Europe.

Juozas Milasius


Nemu Records


Lithuanian guitarist Juozas Milašius' website doesn't yield much information about his work or history, leading one to believe that Slow, his latest disc (and first for German imprint Nemu), is to be taken wholly on its own. To an extent that's true and as a recital for solo electric guitar, Slow does create its own context. Jazz in Lithuania isn't particularly well-represented internationally, though ambassadors such as the Ganelin Trio and saxophonist Petras Vysniauskas (with whom Milasius has worked) are renowned figures in improvised music.

Slow provides few comparative elements with a "European free" tradition, instead presenting a landscape of spare atmospherics and utter simplicity. That said, comparisons elsewhere with figures like guitarist Bill Frisell are not apt—Milasius' work doesn't seem particularly evocative of specific moods or geographic nostalgia. Spare progressions on stripped-down melodies with heavy doses of reverb give a nod towards the pensive rock of Galaxie 500, Brokeback and Codeine, though it's doubtful that these are an influence; rather, Milasius has found a similar instrumental well to draw from.

Heavy, nearly twanging strums give way to spindly delicacy on "Scalpel Sad," and are buried in a cottony and presumably electronic fuzz/haze on "Icy." It should be noted that Milasius is a poet, and words or titles must convey some meaning—from the poem Words, "An instrument is to be left in the shape of a heap / It is an instrument / It thinks too highly of itself / It is only an instrument." His guitar is a conduit for sound and emotion, but it seems somehow dishonest to ascribe specific situational impulses (despite the title) to the liquid, dusty strums on "The Rowels of Spurs" as they end up in particulate clink. Though improvisation is a central fact of Milasius' work, it's primarily in service of structured environments of tenor strum and burbling flit. Slow deserves a special place in the landscape of contemporary solo playing.

Urs Leimgruber and Evan Parker


Clean Feed


Twine presents the duo of Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber and English saxophonist Evan Parker on three improvised pieces for soprano and tenor, and while they've worked together previously this is their first recording as an unaccompanied pair. Though by the late 1970s it would seem that the two saxophonists' work was extraordinarily divergent—Leimgruber's playing was in the Afro-Near-Eastern free jazz group OM and Parker was firmly entrenched in non- idiomatic improvisation—yet both find a leaping-off point in John Coltrane and thus Twine is a place where conversation can begin and be expanded upon.

The title track, at 25 minutes, finds both players on tenor and while there is divergence in their respective sounds, the husky pilings of phrase and long lines of Parker meeting Leimgruber's flintier charge perfectly complement one another. The recording doesn't separate them strictly by channel, thankfully, allowing their sounds and phrases to merge and part with a demarked room-like sensibility and a natural unity.

At the disc's start, Parker unfurls laconic phrases, eddying in tendrils that gradually shorten their spatial plane into condensed, crisp chordal pilings in response to the sharp staccato digs of Leimgruber's shorter-distance runner. Thick, gritty honks are ornamented by wistful upturns and circular-breathed lines until both sputter in excitable dialogue, each elaborating on the other's interpretation of vocabulary. Parker and Leimgruber are probably both better known as soprano saxophonists, merging the possibilities of a higher-pitched straight horn tonality and the depth of parsed chords with a bio-acoustical sensibility.

"Twirl" finds the pair wheeling in the wind, creaking and building a series of calls into whittling repetition, Leimgruber's micro-view seemingly chipping away at a larger whole, while Parker more slowly and with significant detail encircles an already open expanse. It's interesting to hear Parker past the point of revision—not to say he's "comfortable," but in this context he puts forth, quite simply, who he is and what he does, a la Ben Webster or Sidney Bechet. Complemented and abetted by Leimgruber's methodical ornament, Twine is a beautiful disc.

Gunter Christmann/Mats Gustafsson/Paul Lovens



1994 (2010)

Tr!o (a 1994 recording unreleased until now) looks to a point in Swedish reedman Mats Gustafsson's career that predates the hard-blowing pyrotechnics of The Thing (with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, bass; Paal Nilssen-Love, drums) or his work with noise rockers Sonic Youth. He'd been collaborating with German trombonist, string multi-instrumentalist and visual artist Gunter Christmann since the late 1980s, and along with German percussionist Paul Lovens and Swedish guitarist Christian Munthe, was a semi-regular in Christmann's Vario project (a flexible "band" of improvisers).

This live set, recorded in Hannover, was apparently the first performance of the Christmann- Gustafsson-Lovens trio. These three musicians are often placed in extraordinarily dense settings (or perceived as such), in the Wuppertal-Berlin axis of free music exemplified by certain recordings of Brotzmann, von Schlippenbach et al (and their stylistic heirs), so the fact that Tr!o is rather spare might come as a surprise. Gustafsson certainly lets fly with sputtering, multiphonic baritone screams at certain points, and a devilish and slightly afflicted unruliness peppers his flutter-tongued fluteophone (a flute with a saxophone mouthpiece, essentially). But these bursts are momentary uncoilings in an environment of tense, measured conversation as Lovens accents with bowed cymbals and light clatter, Christmann sometimes barely audible but certainly felt as he flits delicately about the cello.

Action—busyness—certainly imbues the space created by these three musicians; there is always something occurring. When individual, an act is connected to other individual statements toward the whole. Even when an act goes unheard, it is most certainly palpable and present. That act could be the low, comically mumbled split-toned trombone that supports chest-beating volleys from baritone and drums, or it could be the act of not making another sound while Christmann builds that mumble into spittled acrobatic needling. But when one goes back to the LPs of the Schlippenbach Trio and Quartet, or Christmann's wonderful duo with percussionist Detlef Schonenberg (also a founding member of FMP), the music isn't all furious blast—there are moments of painstaking detail and painterly fields of color and motion. Let Tr!o be a further example that "European Improvisation" is not an aesthetically specific proposition.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: So Light; Scalpel Sad; Icy; The Rowels of Spurs; Seasickness; Pawnshop Accountant; It's Rare Air Here; Spray Drift; Kino.

Personnel: Juozas Milasius: guitar, PC.


Tracks: Twine; Twirl; Twist.

Personnel: Urs Leimgruber: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Evan Parker: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone.


Tracks: Something More 1; Something More 2; Something More 3; Something More 4; Something More 5; Something More 6; Something More 7; Enough is Not Enough.

Personnel: Gunter Christmann: cello, trombone; Mats Gustafsson: soprano saxophone, baritone saxophone, fluteophone; Paul Lovens: percussion, saw.

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