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Improvisation's Outer Limits 

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Michel Doneda/Paul Rogers/Le Quan Ninh

Open Paper Tree

(FMP)

Polwechsel

Polwechsel

(Random Acoustics)

At this juncture in aural history there are a great number of approaches to improvisation, many of which bear only tangential relation to the music we call jazz. While some of the key figures in the mid-60s European improvised-music scene, such as Peter Brotzmann, Han Bennink, and Peter Kowald, purposely left the umbilical cord to free jazz (and earlier jazz forms) unsevered, other players tested out forms of freedom that deviated from the energy, propulsion, and forward movement traditionally associated with jazz rhythm. With this move came an interrogation of the notion of expressing personal statements that is so intimately connected to the practice of jazz soloing.

Even among these less jazz-centric folks there are vastly different methodologies at work. Take, for instance, new records by the trio of reed player Michel Doneda, percussionist Le Quan Ninh (both French), and British-born, French-resident bassist Paul Rogers, and by the Austro-German quartet called Polwechsel. In both cases the music's closest connection to jazz is its emphasis on timbre and texture, a tendency that can certainly be felt in the voicelike sonorities and vivid colors of, for instance, King Oliver's Dixie Syncopators or any of Duke Ellington's early bands. African-American music has always placed a premium on subtleties of timbre, often over and above innovative harmony or form. Think too of the blues, a three-chord form so stripped down that when it's schematized or abstracted it feels ridiculously rudimentary. But of course the finesse of great blues and jazz performers flies in the face of formal reductionism; they sing and play with irreducible, ineffable inflection and nuance.

On Open Paper Tree the Doneda/Rogers/Ninh trio stretches out into five lengthy, expansive improvisations. Rogers is an exceptional bassist who should be better known among more free-jazz-oriented improvisers; for a different taste of his playing--always deep, woody, and extremely resonant--check out Big Shots (Incus), his strong 1991 workout with tenor saxophonist Tony Bevan and drummer Steve Noble. Here he plays an especially supportive role, never walking or laying down pulsed rhythms but establishing a massive bass ground for the shimmering treble of Doneda's soprano sax and Ninh's clamorous percussion. Also a member of the primo classical-percussion ensemble Quator Helios, Ninh uses a huge table of percussion, with rows of tuned gongs, metal sheets and objects, wood blocks, bells, and lots of other sound-making flotsam and jetsam; his bright, clanging solo on the 18-minute opener, "Variation on Tree Digression," is characteristic, ranging from Peking opera to Tony Oxley.

Doneda has had a longstanding connection with a folklore imaginaire, an approach to melding new and traditional music in unheard-of ways. (Other notable "imaginary folklorists" include singer Benat Achiary and hurdy-gurdy player Dominique Regef.) Doneda's sound may remind you a bit of Roscoe Mitchell's, with long, sometimes convoluted lines that are lent life through circular breathing. But his tone is drier and more puckered than Mitchell's, his vibrato somewhat more pronounced and edgy. On Open Paper Tree the trio moves like a loris--slowly, gradually, making changes without abruption or sudden jerks. On "Arborescence Only" things do begin to shake, rattle, and roll, but long silences break up the flow. Though it keeps the organic crunch and chewiness of free jazz, it's got an unmistakably different focus.

Polwechsel positions itself at a much greater remove from jazz, however. It consists of four pieces by Austrian composer Werner Dafeldecker, each lasting between 10 and 15 minutes. The group features Dafeldecker on bass, Radu Malfatti on trombone, Burkhard Stangl on guitar, and Michael Moser on cello. Like the Doneda/Rogers/Ninh outing (which, it should be remembered, still makes use of a standard jazz sax/bass/drum instrumentation), things take time, often moving even less quickly from one segment to the next. But more striking than Polwechsel's glacial quality is the minute attention it pays to musical materials. Timbre, sound quality, resonance, texture, density, and clarity are the building blocks with which the players brick together their musical structure. The basic skeleton of the pieces is composed, though the detail work is all in the improvisers' capable hands; the players proceed from the instrument outward, searching for the tool's extremes: high harmonics and severe scraping on cello and bass, unvoiced wind noises and frictional lip sounds on trombone. In this ascetic musical setting the smallest gesture can be outrageously funny--Stangl's huge reverb on "Nord" seems like an escapee from an Ennio Morricone sound track.

To these ears, Polwechsel contains some of the most thought-provoking music in recent memory. It's possible to draw connections to composers like Iannis Xenakis, Iancu Dumitrescu, Giacinto Scelsi, and Helmut Lachenmann, contemporary explorers of the outer limits of sound texture and micromusical combustion. But the musicians in Polwechsel also have other input--the electrified minutiae of AMM, the original instant music of Music Improvisation Company, and the new world of improvised sound advanced by a full generation of free players in the 70s and 80s, including such obscure bands as Xpact, the Bugger All Stars, and Quaqua. The last of these changed its name (wonder why) to News From the Shed, and it continues to be one of the best improvising quintets around, including German trombonist Malfatti in its ranks. Stangl works with most of the Austrian vanguard, including trumpeter/composer Franz Koglmann, whose Monoblue Quartet features the guitarist prominently. Moser and Dafeldecker are new names, though the latter commands attention with this superb record. His very unusual record of bass duets with Uli Fussenegger, Bogeng9nge (Durian), is also highly recommended. Part of a new wave of musical materialists, Dafeldecker has a profound respect for sound itself.

In a consumer society that tends to neatly categorize things, groups like this usually find themselves called jazz. Label it, box it, sell it. But these projects work with such a variety of values--some imported and applied directly from jazz, others from postwar classical music, free improvisation, and sources more difficult to pin down--that it seems necessary to develop a more precise description for them. Some music is content to stay in its box, while this music is busy building a new kind of container.

FMP and Random Acoustics releases are available from North Country Distributors, Cadence Building, Redwood, NY 13679; (315) 287-2860.

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