Larry Ochs - Joan Jeanrenaud - Miya Masaoka
Fly Fly Fly
Music for saxophone, cello and koto
Intakt CD 092 / 2004
A RARE BEAUTY
For his debut recording with former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud and koto master Miya Masaoka, Rova Saxophone Quartet's Larry Ochs composed four extended works for improvisation that compel the players to be both quick-thinking and full-feeling. On the album's title track and on "Mystery Street," Ochs set up structures to tell his bandmates how and when -- but not always precisely what -- to play: The ambience (if not often the exact notes) is established in advance. This gives the tunes their distinctive characters while allowing the musicians enough freedom to interact spontaneously. As a result, both tracks cohere with a sophisticated musical logic yet develop lush, emotional cores -- woeful, haunted cello, hallucinatory koto (which at times sounds like an ethereal harp from the Magic Kingdom), and variously soulful or attitudinal sax.
The 23-minute centerpiece, "Heart of the Matter," uses a more complicated system that combines traditional notation and so-called graphic scores -- pictographs that, according to Ochs' liner notes, instruct the players to create "simple" or "complex" musical phrases at calculated points throughout the piece. This dynamic compositional technique adds an extra element of strategic silences, which function almost as a fourth bandmate, off which the other instrumentalists take their cues. The effect is a heady mix of deep breathing and breathlessness, a kind of restive serenity.
The CD's closing track, "It
Happened One Night," also employs a variety of guidelines for improvisation
that the musicians are instructed to work through at their own pace.
Because each instrumentalist can choose to play a certain section for
any length of time, some striking contrasts emerge, say, between the
horn's pointillistic tones and the strings' intensely layered drones,
as the musicians navigate labyrinthine cerebral passages while listening
to each other and responding empathetically. In the end, Fly Fly Fly's
organic integration of head and heart creates a rare beauty that's as
smart as it is poignant.
Saxmeister Ochs verbindet
seine sehr bewusste Suche nach Klangpolen zwischen Emotion und Improvisation
mit Jeanrenauds Cello und Masaokas Kotospiel und gelangt in vier Stücken
zu einer filigran gespielten folklore imaginaire. Durch den ebenso bewussten
Verzicht auf dramatische Expression wie auf das sklavische Konzept-Hinterherschnüffeln
gelingt der Improvisation des Trios eine genuine Struktur aus Kopf und
Gefühl, die sich im Zusammenspiel sowohl erneuert als auch erweitert.
In einer nur auf dem ersten
Blick ungewöhnlichen Konstellation präsentiert sich LARRY OCHS auf Fly
Fly Fly (Intakt 092) mit der ehemaligen Kronos-Quartet-Cellistin JOAN
JEANRENAUD und MIYA MASAOKA an der Koto. Ochs selbst verweist zum einen
auf die klangliche Affinität zwischen dem von Honsinger, Reijseger,
Aebi, Ulrich oder Lonberg-Holm so ganz unterschiedlich im Improkontext
eta-blierten Celloklang und dem Tenorsax und dass andererseits gerade
in San Francisco, dem Standort des World Music Center, die Ohren für
östliche Klänge seit langem sensibilisiert seien. Er hat die Musik komponiert,
und zwar mit unterschiedlichen Kombinationen von Notation, Zeitlinien,
graphischen Instruktionen und visuellen Zeichen, immer mit dem Können
seiner Partnerinnen im Hinterkopf. Es ist weitgehend autonome Kammermusik,
bei der Titelkomposition mit nicht mehr Assoziationen an Jazzähnliches,
als sie im Saxophonsound unwillkürlich mitschwingen. Masaoka, selbst
renommiert als Komponistin, Vorsitzende der San Francisco Gagaku Society
und Leaderin des Masaoka Orchestra und mit Ochs bereits vertraut durch
das zusammen mit Fred Frith gebildete Trio Maybe Monday (Saturn‘s Finger,
1998), entlockt hier ihrer Koto Harfenarpeggios und vermeidet meist
einen ausgeprägt exotischen Touch. Bei ‘Mystery Street‘ spielt Jeanrenaud
auf dem Cello einen Walking Bass und der japanische Beigeschmack der
Koto evoziert einen Hauch von Little Tokyo oder Chinatown. Die beiden
Saiteninstrumente wechseln dann aber zu chromatischer Arco-Klangmalerei,
entwerfen schimmernde Paravents, auf denen sie wilde Motive aufflammen
lassen. ‘Heart of the Matter‘ verdankt seinen Titel nicht Graham Greene,
sondern Rene Magritte. Im 23-min. Enigma des Überwirklichen schlägt
das Herz aller Dinge flirrend im Pizzikato. Ochs malt mit dem Sopranino
noch zartere Impressionen als mit dem cremigen Schmelz seines Tenors.
Dennoch scheint Impressionismus, schnelle Pinselstriche, die eine spezifische
Atmosphäre einfangen, nicht das Dominante an diesen Geweben und Texturen,
die eher dem, von kalifornischem Licht und japanischer Delikatesse verfeinerten,
luxuriösen Schimmer eines Debussy oder Takemitsu ähneln, auch wenn Ochs
sich als Verehrer von Xenakis bekennt. Bei ‘It Happened One Night‘ -
Gable und Colbert flickern kurz durchs Bild - verdichten Jeanrenaud
und Masaoka die feinen Verhäkelungen durch Sampling bzw. Electronics,
die Ochs quäkende Figuren mit noisigen Echos und geschabten Schraffuren
einkreisen und in die Parade fahren.
Cellos and tenor saxophones have similar timbres, which means that increasingly composers are putting together combos that use this musical blend as a starting point for improvisation. Even though both CDs here feature that line up as well as four long compositions each, the results couldn't be more different. That's because New Jersey-based percussionist Kevin Norton plays up the jazz-orientation of his quartet, while Oakland, Calif.-based saxist Larry Ochs of ROVA Quartet fame, injects his cellist into a musical situation that draws on structured and cued improvisations mixed with elements of so-called New and World music.
A former member of the Kronos String Quartet, Joan Jeanrenaud, who is featured on FLY FLY FLY, has expanded her palate from contemporary classical to improv in the company of players with catholic interests like Ochs and guitarist Fred Frith. INTUITIVE STRUCTURES' cellist on the other hand is Tomas Ulrich, who is firmly in the jazz orbit working with saxophonist Ivo Perelman, guitarist Don Minasi and for many years with Norton.
FLY's third participant is kotoist Miya Masaoka, a veteran of through composed and ethnic situations, whose instrument's 21-strings have blended with the reeds of John Butcher as well as Ochs. Meanwhile Norton's band is filled out with other Free Jazzers -- bassist John Lindberg, co-founder of the String Trio of New York, and tenor and soprano saxophonist Louie Belogenis, a longtime associate of seminal jazz figures like drummer Rashied Ali. Notwithstanding this, Norton's prowess on vibraphone, drums and percussion add yet another dimension to his disc.
On its own, the quartet isn't afraid to turn out its version of swing -- consider there are two run-throughs of Norton's "Walking the Dogma". The instrumentation conjures up memories of vibist Red Norvo's drum-less trio on one hand, and with the cello treated as another horn, Ornette Coleman's piano-less quartets on the other.
"Etude for Ricky W." unites these various strands in diverse ways. Soon after the piece begins, for instance, Lindberg's slinky ponticello lines are followed by double tongued musette-like nasal quacks from Belogenis' soprano. Shuffle bowing from Ulrich and Pops Foster-like slap bass from Lindberg opens up a soundfield for Norton, who takes advantage of the gap with wood block thwacks, tubular bell resonation, güiro-like scrapes and tones that could come from Kulingtang gongs. As the two string players alternate between walking bass lines and bouncing string patterns at one another, Belogenis on tenor saxophone, smears, soars and split his notes into harsh shards with intense vibrato and squeaking overtones. Norton exits the tune with a quasi march tempo that then dissolves into smacks on a single cymbal plus the sound of what seems to be a cloth wiping the drum tops.
Polyphony and double counterpoint characterize many of the other compositions, whether they start from a through composed section or develop from group improvisations. On vibes Norton combines Gary Burton-like multi-mallet work with the sort of well-paced reverberating timbres you'd associate with Milt Jackson. Of course his concept is more advanced and abstract than either man. It would have to be, since Belogenis' John Coltrane-influenced attack could bury delicate instruments like the vibes and cello.
During the course of the two "Dogma"s for instance, the reedist's output moves from floating, slurred pitches to bottom feeder honks and from frenzied note pecking to wider, more vibrato-laden lines that recall Trane's modal work mixed with a bagpipe-like drone. Lindberg contributes long-lined portamento bowing that touches on legit technique and rock steady pulses. Ulrich's snaking tones can be positioned with violin-like jettes or swing with convergent arpeggios. On drums Norton rumbles when he has to, or produces a snare and cymbal tap dance, the better to meld with the double stopping bass and cello.
In contrast, FLY's string section is limited to a single person with Jeanrenaud's more formal style a sharp contrast to Ulrich's freer output with Norton. Then again her role on this CD is different as well. Sometimes the tunes depend on her legato sweeps to provide a backdrop upon which the cascading waterfall of koto strings blend -- or at least meet -- harsh, altissimo squeals from Ochs' sopranino.
In other spots, there are contrapuntal harmonic duets between the quivering tones of Ochs' sax and lightly pressured arco cello parts. When this happens, it's Masaoka who provides the comprehensive continuum. The koto isn't just used as an exotic color organ either. On a blusey section of "Mystery Street", as the saxman creates irregular vibrations and double tongued trills, Masaoka counters with chromatic flat-picking that could come from a Neapolitan mandolin. Alternately, Ochs mouthpiece buzzing and jagged, shuffle bowing from Jeanrenaud bring forward an assembly line of single strong snaps and sweeps from the koto.
Electronics, anathema to more orthodox Free Jazzers makes its appearance on the final track here. Still, the sine wave treatments, courtesy of Masaoka, merely diffuse the sound or let the koto's 21 strings resonate with more depth. They don't become an end in themselves. Providing cyclic accents among the koto's glissandos, the plug-in moments are weighted against integers of intermittent sopranino squeaks and flutter tonguing plus percussive suggestions from the cello that appear to go beyond col legno and sul tasto to open handed smacks on the ribs. Central to the session is the appropriately titled more than 23-minute "Heart of the Matter", with its constant changes in mood, tempo, direction and harmonies. Beginning with bravura sopranino obbligatos, as if it was a folk air, the kotoist provides chromatic strumming and the cellist shuffle bowing.
After Ochs' air raid siren nasality is moderated into an Arabic sounding theme, a deluge of variations from the koto polyphonically fill the spaces. Jreanrenaud, meanwhile, slides out a pitch that could come from a muted trumpet, finally creating fulsome double stops upon which Ochs introduces glottal punctuation and Masaoka chromatic flat-picking.
Finally, after ponticello strokes from Jeanrenaud, irregular vibrations and false fingering from Ochs and a set of glissandi from Masaoka, slither back-and-forth for emphasis, the climax arrives. It turns out to be breathy, folkloric smears from the saxist and vague classical arpeggios from the cellist, which link the theme to its beginning. Eastern, Western, notated, cued and improvised musics meet on these two sessions to auspiciously demonstrate how versatile bands that texturally partner saxophone and cellos can be.
Ken Waxman, Jazzweekly, October, 2004, USA
* * * *
I don’t know whether
this CD was consciously programmed as a suite – that its four
tracks were recorded on three different occasions in 2001 and 2002 suggests
it probably wasn’t – but there’s nonetheless a very
satisfying arch-like structure to the album. The first three pieces
have similar openings: simple, forlorn songs with a strong Asian or
Middle Eastern coloration. (Ochs can make both tenor and sopranino saxes
sound positively non-Western, and Jeanrenaud’s cello can sound
like an erhu; conversely, Miya Masaoka’s koto often suggests harp,
the strummed insides of a piano, or even a hurdy-gurdy.) Each piece
gets progressively further from its starting point, however. “Fly
Fly Fly” keeps scrupulously to the spare beauty of its original
theme, while “Mystery Street” circles slowly around a murmuring,
melancholy theme before converging on a brisk minor key dance, then
becomes increasingly tenuous and dreamlike. “The Heart of the
Matter”, the album’s centrepiece, opens with yet another
evocative songlike melody, but the musicians now move in much tighter
circles, and the piece is far more astringent and quick-moving than
the first two, a kind of sonic hopscotch between little motivic clusters.
Ochs plays with great simplicity – often just a note or two quivering
in the air – but the pivotal musician here is Masaoka, whose extended
solo at a crucial moment bends the piece back to its starting point.
The last piece, “It Happened One Night”, breaks the general
pattern, forgoing melancholy tunefulness in favour of mouselike chitterings
and peeps – at least until the miniature explosion right before
the end; it’s also the one occasion on the disc where Masaoka
and Jeanrenaud use (discreet) electronics.
Anthony Fragos, Difono, Athens, Greece, Summer 2006
Marc Medwin portraits Larry Ochs, All About Jazz New York, USA, February 2009