Niescier Plays With Her New York Trio

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WP 2019 - 2NEW YORK TRIO / NIESCIER: The Surge. Cold Epiphany. …ish. Ekim. Push/Pull. Chancery Touting. 5.8. A Truck Passing a Clock Tower / Angelika Niescier, a-sax; Jonathan Finlayson, tpt; Christopher Tordini, bs; Gerald Cleaver, dm / Intakt CD 321

German avant-garde alto saxist Angelika Niescier here combines her talents with a trio of New York musicians: trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Christopher Tordini and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

And what a rush this music is: edgy, atonal, yet always pulsing with life and, for the most part, musically cogent. Although quite obviously influenced by John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound,” Niescier does not fall into the trap of just playing circular chromatics in an endless chain, choosing instead to cover the full range of her instrument in both scale passages and chromatics, although there are indeed some moments where she seems to be showing off more than charting her musical course.

Trumpeter Finlayson, by contrast, takes the clearer route in his improvisations, keeping to shorter note durations and finely chiseled scalar solos—sort of a modernist version of Bobby Hackett with occasional moments reminiscent of Clifford Brown.

NiescierCold Epiphany is a very strange piece, emerging quietly in little grunts and gestures from Niescier and bassist Christopher Tordini while drummer Gerald Cleaver works out energetically behind them. Even after Finlayson enter, it pretty much stays that way to the end. …ish is a hard bop tune, with the rhythm section working frantically behind the leader’s alto improvisations, sometimes scalar and sometimes chromatic. Her solo dominates this track. In Ekim, which starts out at an extremely slow ballad tempo—almost forlorn and eerie, in fact—features the leader playing over long bowed notes in the bass and, eventually, a few soft trumpet notes and flutters from Finlayson. The melodic line here is long and sinuous, yet somewhat difficult to grasp as a “tune,” with the continuation of her playing embellishing this sparse line without really filling it in very much. Finlayson’s solo is tightly structured, which gives body to this somewhat ghostly piece, and played with an excellent tone. The piece then comes to an abrupt halt.

In Push/Pull, Niescier has created a sinuous, twisting melodic line built around her blistering-fast scales and chromatics which are then interspersed with strongly-attacked held notes. When Finlayson enters at the three-minute mark, it is with high notes that also lead into fast downward scales though, again, his solo is a model of calmness and tight structure. Eventually, things slow down as the two horns come together, first in counterpoint and then in harmony and the rhythm section stops completely before the final two bars.

FinlaysonChancery Touting is somewhat hard to describe. Niescier plays another snaky line as the melody that morphs into held notes with Cleaver playing some odd-sounding percussion (some kind of blocks or something) behind her and Tordini enters playing a rhythm that runs apposite to the saxist’s. The music increases and then increases in tempo, largely due to Niescier’s contrasts of rapid and slow figures in the improvisation. Eventually it starts to sound like electronic music as first Finlayson and then Niescier play spitting figures on their horns, distorting the sound somewhat. We return to somewhat more normal (for her) jazz in 5.8, a tune that sounds a bit like Middle Eastern belly dance music in the bridge. This one, too, is pretty much dominated by the saxist. Several different rhythms come and go in this one.

In the finale, A Truck Passing a Clock Tower, Niecsier plays soft, breathy figures on her alto while bass and drums fill in lightly behind her, then we hear Tordini playing light figures on the edge of his strings before returning to pizzicato bass. Niescier plays out-of-tempo figures while Cleaver ruminates in his own out-of-tempo figures behind her. The music suddenly stops at the two-minute mark—at first I thought it was the end of the track—before starting up again, softly and slowly with painful, whining figures on the alto before things wind back up again. (Maybe the truck hit the watchtower.) There’s a strange bass-alto sax duet that goes on for a bit, the tempo suddenly picks up and the trio (Finlayson doesn’t play on this one) starts swinging, only to stop dead again. The End.

This is truly a strange yet wonderful album of outside jazz by a master, playing with musicians who fully understand her aesthetic. Recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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