An Assortment of Goodies

Walt Mundkowsky

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]

Before Stefan Winter launched the Munich-based Winter & Winter label, he produced a stream of uncommon jazz releases at JMT. (A decade later, I still listen to the first Arcado String Trio album, and Miniature’s I can’t put my finger on it, with pleasure.) Although Winter’s new catalog boasts many classical titles (usually done with a twist), improvised music remains a priority. This Fred Frith effort aims at combining the two — “cells of composed music which can be juxtaposed with improvisation of various kinds.” The results vary considerably as to inspiration and finish.

“Juxtaposed” is definitely the word for the first cycle (1996), as Frith seldom moves his material beyond basic oppositions toward some form of development. “Inadvertent Introduction” undercuts an acrobatic clarinet (à la Rhapsody in Blue) with loud orchestral thumps. Glassian ostinati interrupt “First Riddle,” and an insistent one-note trombone wittily routs an obnoxious free-jazz sax in “Traffic II.” Several episodes plant a lugubrious solo in front of a twittering backdrop, and “Freeway” employs a multitude of halting entries across the orchestra, to scant effect.

Traffic Continues II: Gusto (for Tom Cora), written two years later, is strong and affecting. Here the formative “cells” are samples of the late cellist’s muscular playing, which are often mirrored by pianist Hermann Kretzschmar. Everything sounds more focused. The arrangements have bite and color, and the citations (a Bond-movie brass figure, European café-music strains) alter the landscape. Solo contributions ¾ Ikue Mori’s drum machines, Zeena Parkins’ harp, and Frith’s distinctive chattering, murmuring guitar ¾ surface and depart like shipwreck survivors. The 11:34 finale (“One Never Knows Do One? / Adage Coda / Long Fade”) is by turns murky, chilling, and richly emotive. The episodic structure never slackens, while the intensity fluctuates throughout. A long deceleration is beautifully judged; the component parts separate from each other, but forward motion touchingly continues.

Mike has no doubt described Winter & Winter’s singular packaging. I’ll confine myself to a single nitpick. The CD is held in the container by pressure across half its playing surface (unlike the jewelbox or digipack, which clamp the disc around its center). So it’s impossible to remove this disc — even once — without marring its coating a bit. [Mike has not commented on the disc’s packaging, which, as Walt observes, is less than caressing. Handsome, yes — rather like a small, nicely bound book. Ed.]