Five from hatART

Mike Silverton

[November 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:4.]

Despite its diminutive size, hatART weighs in among the great ones, with “diminutive” alluding solely to management, consisting in its legions of Pia and Werner X. Uehlinger. The catalog by happy nay, delightful! contrast bespeaks a boxcar of vision.

To break these five recent releases into two of hatART’s three new categories (hatOLOGY, hat[now]ART, and the so far diminutive hatNOIR), we’ve three under hatOLOGY and two under hat[now]ART. The first grouping in the loosest possible terms embraces jazz, the latter, avant-garde “classical” from about mid-century (Stockhausen, Cage, etc.) to the never less than intriguing present. I think that a music lover of a certain temperament must be happiest when he wades about in fascinating sounds he hesitates to categorize. I’m playing for about the tenth time a disc entitled Gregorio / Gustafsson / Nordeson / Background Music [hatOLOGY 526]. The names are those of Guillermo Gregorio, alto sax, tenor sax, clarinet; Mats Gustafsson, tenor sax, flugelhorn; and Kjell Nordeson, drums, percussion. Gregorio, a native of Argentina currently active in the Chicago area, has a few hats to his credit. I find it interesting and of course encouraging that (on hat at least) he started off strong with Approximately [hat Jazz Series 6184, issued in 1996]: Gregorio, alto sax, clarinet; Eric Pakula, tenor sax, alto sax; Mat Maneri, violin; Pandelis Karayorgis, piano; John Lockwood, bass. The disc’s 14 numbers, performed in Cambridge, Massachusetts in ’95, while sounding almost like jazz, trade primarily in a characteristic one soon recognizes as essential Gregoriana: great stretches of intensely original, delicious invention cradled in a a state of tranquil self-assurance. Mark tranquil well.

Even so, by comparison with his next hat release, Approximately’s cerebrally abstract character tends withal to the dreamily humid. I suspect that Gregorio, one of new music’s great and gracious innovators, would sooner throw himself from a roof than set his listeners’ teeth on edge seasoned listeners, I perhaps sould add. It cannot be overstated: these zephyrs, which carry some wonderfully strange, now and again bracing fragrances, rarely surpass a gentle breeze’s intensity. Having mentioned it in my first hat survey, we come again to Ellipsis [hatOLOGY 511, issued in ’97: Gregorio, alto and tenor saxes, clarinet; Gene Coleman, bass clarinet; Jim o’Rourke, acoustic guitar, accordion; Carrie Biolo, vibes; and Michael Cameron, acoustic bass], a release which departs in several of its numbers from honeyed calm toward an assertiveness which never impinges on the sort of raucous self-indulgence one has come to anticipate from aspects of free jazz. Discourse occurs not as an undisciplined, bull-horn polemic but rather as gentle, civilized persuasion. If I had to pare down my jazz collection to a dozen specimens, I know I’d include Ellipsis. Whenever I play it I hear it anew, and I mean that quite literally. Given that its medium remains as fixed as letters in stone, the succession of revelations one experiences transpire in a mind happily incapable of ever absorbing the lot. When a recording remains close to as fresh as the events from which it springs, that’s one hell of a recording.

The sustaining sense of originality has likewise to do with Ellipsis’s infinitely inventive, or if you prefer, improvisational, character, which the same instrumentalists (Gregorio: alto sax / clarinet; Biolo: vibraphone / percussion; Cameron: acoustic bass; Coleman: bass clarinet; O’Rourke: accordion / hurdy gurdy / electronics) brings to Kyle Gann’s small-ensemble transcriptions of Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 10 (two versions) and Composition No. 16 (+101), hat[now]ART 108. Gann also produced these extraordinary events, recorded in gorgeous detail to the highest audiophile standard by Steve Mezger in Chicago.

Ellipsis and the Braxton limited editions I mention again owing to their remarkable kinship to Background Music, edition of 3000. Gustafsson and Nordeson are Norwegian, a fact I drop merely as a crumb of information. In terms of outcome, the ambiance is once again thoroughly Gregorian: introspective, contemplative, marvelously inventive, molecularly detailed (as lagniappe for the sound-freak), all of which virtues sum to unpredictability, which, taken a further step, as amenable to multiple plays and rewards thereto depending. If one listens with open ears, what may seem at first obscurantistic Dada in-gathers after several exposures to intelligible musical discourse. But don’t misread discourse; there is no message, nor will you ever hear it discourse minus message, that is should you decline to exit the interstate for an unpaved path through strange terrain. If I’ve aroused your interest, I suggest Ellipsis first, as the more immediately appealing. Then by all means go by all means to the rather more austere Background Music.

The adventuresome listener’s desert-isle packet might also include a re-issue-plus, Lauren Newton / Filigree [hatOLOGY 519]: Lauren Newton, voice; David Friedman, vibraphone; Thomas Stabenow, bass; Manfred Kniel, drums. We begin on a technical note owing to confusion. This superb recording is the work of Peter Pfister, an engineer I’ve often praised (but never as much as he deserves). The backside of hat’s paper CD envelope shows an ADD Spars Code. However, the annotator, Bert Noglik, speaks of these sessions as “the original digital master tapes of 1982.” It’s a minor matter of importance to me because, as a contributor to The Abso!ute Sound, I’m at pains to remind philovinylites that a number of early digital recordings exhibit few to none of the qualities that made these folks the reactionaries they are. In any event, Filigree was first released in ’82 eponymously as Timbre, the present program’s first, gloriously seductive number. Filigree also includes for the first time out of the can the long (13:28) and rewarding “Early Piece,” for which alone, thanks.

Excepting in its largely supporting rôle , Newton’s wordless vocalizations participate as first among equals with Manfred Kniel’s drumset, David Friedman’s remarkably colorful vibraphone and Thomas Stabenow’s acoustic double-bass. The ensemble work and solos are purely delightful and unmistakably jazz. Newton possesses a lovely instrument, but so too does a boatload of singers. How she applies it sets her apart. We normally experience jazz vocalization as an aspirant’s application as the Guiness Book’s entrant for maximal syllabification. Newton differs essentially in her preference for seductive avian flights by way of slurred glissandi, sprechstimme, melismatic solfege, whimsical phonemics, tho she will go full tilt, Guinesswise, in, for example, the sixth of her program’s seven pieces, “Cross Rhythms,” where her voice waxes as lubricious (in the oily sense of the word’s definition, with its other meaning, licentious, not all that far behind) as that of a master singer of the South Indian Carnatic tradition. As flightily cheerful as this disc plays, there’s some profoundly serious music-making at work. The record business is awash in reissues, a lot of which (classical especially, but that’s another story) seem to this listener less than urgently required. This is one that need not justify its re-emergence (plus). I’d not have missed it for the world, nor should you.

Ellery Eskelin with Andrea Parkins & Joe Black / Kulak, 29 & 30 [hatOLOGY 521] features Eskelin, tenor sax; Parkins, accordion, sampler; Black, percussion. The title alludes to date and site, Kulak (presumably a jazz venue) in Berikon, Switzerland, 29 & 30 October, 1997. (See also this trio’s One Great Day [hatOLOGY 502, 1997, edition 2500.)

Kulak, 29 & 30 is another Peter Pfister gem. How I admire this engineer’s work! The disc I recommend primarily to those jazz afficionados with a taste for the hard-driving ostinatos which in large part subsume this Eskelin-led trio’s abundant inventiveness. We’re a pole’s distance from Gregorio’s feathery, impromptu-like etchings. But well within hatART’s bailiwick. It’s the rare hat release that strikes me as a bore. At times perplexing, certainly that. In the main, and I mean this quite seriously, Werner Uehlinger, with all of his Euro-kulchur-apparat connections, along with links to American jazz, has contributed as much toward my musical education as any one individual I can think of, with the compliment serving as the ideal segue to our brief survey’s two remaining CDs, both under the new-music / classical hat[now]ART heading. The first is entitled Jo Kondo / Chamber Music / Ensemble l’Art pour l’Art [hat[now]ART 110, edition of 3000]. Before I begin, let me warn the prospective purchaser away from Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians, Laura Kuhn, editor. Jo Kondo’s is at the end of a long list of invisible entries in this convenient door jamb. Also suitable for elevating young diners. The composer’s otherwise informative note to Chamber Music offers no biography. Happily, my super-sophisticated filing-card system pinpoints a Globe CD, Irony [GLO 5086, released 1992], the notes to which put Kondo’s birth at 1947.

The disc’s program, some of it written for this fine German ensemble with the contemporarily apt, fin-de-siecle-decadent handle (Mathias Kaul, percussion; Hartmut Leistritz, piano; Nele B. Nelle, clarinet; Eva Pressl, harp; Astrid Schmeling, flute; Michael Schrsÿder, guitar and conducting three of the programÍs eight pieces), traffics in the main in a luminous transparency of a precisely punctuated character: Kondo’s interests look to rhythmic adventure, with the music’s featherweight textures and moods its exquisitely rendered timbres in support. If one must speak of musical argument, the subject is time’s apportionment. With respect to lightness, brightness and crisp articulation, Kondo reminds me of Franco Donatoni, with Kondo occupying a gentler, pastoral, as often as not distinctly Japanese terrain, the latter characteristic to be understood in its folk-traditional over modernist-cosmopolitan sense. Aquarelle of 1990 and An Insular Style of 1980 (the music’s dates range from ’76 to ’95) contradict whatever impression of career liveliness I may have conveyed with their heart-touching melancholy. The good 1997 recording is the work of Deutschland Funk (in English, Radio).

Were hatART CDs capable of broadcasting force fields, no parcel could together enclose Jo Kondo’s Chamber Music and a disc entitled Polwechsel (Radu Malfatti, trombone; Burkhard Stangl, electric guitar; Michael Moser, cello; Werner Dafeldecker, double bass, electric guitar), so opposed to Kondo’s deliberations is the latter’s ostensibly unbuttoned, anarchic esthetic [hat[now]ART 112, edition of 3000]. This writer’s compliments first to candor. The backside of the paper envelope in conventional plastic, the traycard side acknowledges Polwechsel’s initial appearance as a Random Acoustics release, RA 009. (I propose to cover several of pianist George Graewe’s Random Acoustics productions in the next issue. Stuff not to be missed!)

Polwechsel’s Werner Dafeldecker contributes three and Michael Moser one of the program four pieces, with Dafeldecker’s named for compass points: Nord, Ost, Sudwest. Moser calls his piece NNO-Fernaumoos, about which as a name I can tell you nothing. My sole grievance with regard to hatART centers on this remarkable label’s frequently uninformative notes. What annotator Christian Scheib has to say in interesting, as far as it goes. For example: “Even music evolving from a background like this finds its place in an historical development, although music history hasn’t been densely inhabited by musicians and composers who are working towards a productive tension between the poles of improvisation and composition .[italics mine].

Here’s a challenge for you. Proceed to some outdoor spot busy with traffic, passersby, construction gear, aircraft, quarreling starlings, what-have-you and listen. You will agree that we call this stuff noise. Play Polwechsel. You may well be tempted to call what you hear noise. Yet it differs profoundly from any of the above aleatory activities in ways I find if not ineffable, then inconvenient to explicate. I’ve neither the time, skill, nor energy. Further, and here’s where life in the sweet spot gets really interesting, Polwechsel differs, again in ways inconvenient to explicate, from one among several hat releases that arrived to late for inclusion here. Rajesh Mehta Solos & Duos Featuring Paul Lovans / Orka appears under the hatOLOGY, i.e., jazz heading [hatOLOGY 524]. Mehta performs on an array of trumpets and trumpet hybrids; Lovens is a percussionist. Like Polsechsel, the music or, if you prefer, the noise deals in audibles that connect to precious little the newcomer to this manner of sound-sculpture is likely to hear as the teensiest, attenuated crumb of recognizable musical discourse. And yet it’s clear to me (but please don’t ask!) why Mehta and Lovans perform under hat’s jazz aegis, and Polwechsel under new-music / classical’s hat[now]ART.

Enough to say that the Moser piece, which I hear as a little gem, engages close to melodically in luxurious glissandi and drones, the weightiest of these from Radu Malfatti’s trombone. L’Art pour l’Art indeed! “Pure” music doesn’t get much more virginal than this. The observation applies with yet more vigor to Werner Dafeldecker. Indeed, in this outre context, Moser plays Madama Butterfly to Dafeldecker’s Lulu. His three compass-point pieces engage in ostensibly random assemblages of scratching, blatting, bustling about, growling, humming, pings, thrums, squeals and pops. And I love every anarchic moment! One’s affection owes in large measure to these marvelously detailed Austrian recordings of ’93 and ’94. With this kind of music especially, one requires a ringside seat via playback gear of superior transparency and resolution. To miss all the busyness at and about hearingÍs threshold, as well as the onslaughts in all their feisty glory is to miss the point. Hat plans a second Polwechsel, to which, need I say, I look keenly forward.