Monday, August 19, 2013


Frank Gratkowski Trio Gestalten (JazzHausMusik 1995) Frank Gratkowski (as/b.clar) Dieter Manderscheid (b) Gerry Hamingway (d/perc)
The line up of sax/bass/drums has long been a favorite of mine. Though I am still working my way through his fairly extensive discography (there is still A LOT left to hear) Gestalten is the Gratkowski album I have listened to the most over the years.

Leaps from the sax create a “push & pull” type effect. The accompaniment features spacious playing from the bass (in some ways an eco of the sax) and minimal fills from drums. Each players’ part breathes freely, no member encroaches on the other two and everyone sticks to shorter phrase lengths.

Alongside the quite busy playing from sax and drums, the Bass is quite a contrast - almost as if he is playing a ballad and the others are up tempo. He utilizes plenty of space. Around the half way mark a slow and dirge-like section appears as the sax wails on top with the drums at his side (urgent but not over powering). The bass remains very much in touch with (not detached from) the trio - very effective. The entire range of the sax comes into play - a distorted bottom end (reverse altissimo?), right through to stratospheric whistles. A short pianissimo burn finishes things off.

A bass feature emerges from the whispers of the trio, working its way to pointed higher register sounds contrasted with bent and sliding notes. The accompaniment - key sounds and air from sax with textural rattles and accents from drums - builds until it becomes a three way dialogue about 2/3rds of the way into the piece. Some great light-toned lines quietly burst free from the sax. The finish is somewhat abrupt. 

"Con Affetto" 
A ballad featuring rich arco tones from the bass and quiet, low register counter lines from the bass clarinet. A nice, economic use of notes for the duration of the piece. Throughout, Hemingway manipulates the pitch of his drums (not a cymbal to be heard) to create a glissandi-like backing. 

"Dancing Derwish”
Urgent bass gets things underway basing his lines on a repeated figure. The intensity gradually rises as the bass clarinet enters alternating clean and distorted sounds, at times very throaty. Manderscheid's fingers really start to fly backed by some great low volume playing from Hemingway (his use of dynamics across the album is impressive). He gets some room to strut his solo playing later in the tune.
Often on this album, the continuity is such that it is difficult to separate the compositional from the improvised sections. For example: following the bass solo when bass clarinet enters, over a solid groove from bass & drums, could easily be composed. 
At 11 and a half minutes this is the longest track on the album. Most sit between four and six minutes with only one other over 10. For those of you that find longer pieces (particularly free improvisations) hard work, take note.

"Stag Rustler" 
A mysterious beginning - at times it's difficult to differentiate between the players parts. Amidst the clicking, clacking, blowing, and occasional low end rumble, a melody makes a brief. The melody retreats and the 'background' intensifies before dropping out altogether and the melody takes us out. Composed by Hemingway

Melodic microtonal playing from sax (at times producing a flute like tone quality). When I tune into the bass & drums low volume backing of the sax, I find them wonderfully in sync. A delicate, haunting ballad.

“Duck Hunt”
A piece of contrasts - starting out quiet(but busy) high register arco bass, light textural percussion and airy, vocalized sounds from sax until 3 and a half mins when alto grunting appears. The saxophone takes on an abrasive, gritty & distorted tone and the notes gather pace. The bass playing becomes more angular, sliding and stark. A wash of sound from the drums covering the whole kit - unrelenting until the seven and a half minute mark when the trio suddenly cuts down to a whisper for the final two minutes - watery breath sounds, stringy bass and scraping drums (at times mimicked by the sax).

Solitary bass clarinet opens up the piece. The use of dynamics is impressive - from barely audible to loud (not raucous). Scraped cymbals accompany with very occasional arco bass punctuations (he makes each one count). A nice wind down and finish to the album.

General observations:

Form/StructureAs mentioned above it is often difficult to distinguish the improvised from the composed. Form is an important element in Gratkowski's work and here he is playing with artists that can realize improvised structure. The compositions (4 by Gratkowski, 1 by Hemingway & 4 group improvisations) play an important part in the form also - the shape of the album as a whole. Each contain different moods, textures, intensities, tempos, densities and relationships between players.

TextureWhile Gratkowski doesn't expand his arsenal like he does on some albums (no clari/contra bass clari here) he still creates a variety of textures. Playing with clean and distorted tone, mixed articulations, dynamics, air & key sounds, smears, varied tonal color, multiphonics, microtonality etc. 
Plenty of variety from the rhythm section too. The bass uses pizzicato and arco, scratching sounds, percussive playing, string sounds, slides, bends, harmonics, pulse and non-pulse playing. The drums make use of all the sounds available on the kit, varies attack, pulse/non-pulse, rumbles, crashes, rustles, swings,busy at times but rarely overpowers the rest of the trio. 
All three make great use of space and dynamics across the album. 

Unity - A trio of 3 equal parts. As a sax player, my focus is drawn towards the horn. But everyone is on the same wave length and plays a crucial role in shaping each piece.

To my knowledge this trio only made one other album - "The Flume Factor" (I'll add it to my list) - before evolving into a quartet with the addition of Dutch trombonist Wolter Wierbos.

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