DANCE HALL STORIES / NABATOV-GRATKOWSKI-MAHNIG: Hopeful Glances. Wrong Move Reflected. It’s All in the Hips.* Slinky. Gradual Enticement.* Sitting One Out. Cautious Invitation.* Pocket Found* / Frank Gratkowski, a-sax/cl/bs-cl/fl; Simon Nabatov, pno; *Dominik Mahnig, dm / Leo Records CD LR 880
The title and cover art of this album are deceiving, suggesting music for dancing and possibly even in the vein of swing when it is nothing of the sort. As the liner notes suggest—and I do not agree with this—“A dance hall after all is, among other things, an arena for attraction, rejection and every nuance of human interaction in-between. New encounters on the dance floor play out with every ramification imaginable. From shy to boastful, from resigned to hopeful, from insecure to assertive and jubilant – the entire gamut of emotions is on display. Following these outlines, the pieces take on varied forms – some have rather linear development, some find an abrupt ending, some sustain almost stasis character, others quiet down after a storm of emotions.”
The reason I disagree with this is that, in the two times I went to a “dance hall” as a teen, all I experienced was rejection—or, perhaps more accurately, being ignored. The few times I conjured up the nerve to go up and talk to someone, I was simply ignored. No jubilation, no acceptance, nothing. I was much happier going to the Meadowbrook to see Duke Ellington’s band play in person, one of the great moments in my life. I had no need to try to find a dance partner. I could simply bask in the wonderful sounds that emanated from the bandstand.
Thus the reader will perhaps understand my perspective in reviewing this CD. I liked a great deal of the music herein, but found its connection with “every nuance of human interaction” more than a bit of a stretch. Hopeful Glances is a musical story told in short gestures: sad little notes played on both alto sax and piano, more like “pathetic gestures.” It is a sad little atonal piece, yet one that holds your attention due to its feeling of complete isolation. The protagonist may as well be standing in an empty room imagining what he or she might do if in a dance hall, but without dance music surrounding it, it’s just a lonely piece. The tempo picks up around the 2:40 mark but the feeling of isolation does not. Gratkowski moves into the upper register of his instrument, playing occasional notes that sound like cries; then the music stops at about 4:00, only to restart with a plaintive line that coalesces into a melody of sorts while Nabatov plays opposing single-note figures in the bass. The music thus develops in this vein. Our protagonist seems to be hopefully glancing all over the room at nearly everybody in it, receiving no response from any of them. At 6:09 the tempo increases again, becoming jumpy and jittery; these are no longer hopeful, but neurotic, glances. Fear and panic set in as the music proceeds to its conclusion, the alto sax squealing and screaming in protest.
Wrong Move Reflected is a fast-paced piece in which the alto sax plays buzzes through the mouthpiece and splatters fast high-note lines into the ether as the piano creates its own web of jittery fourths in a variety of atonal pitches. Gratkowski also switches to the bass clarinet at one point to burp out some staccato S.O.S. notes in its lower range. Some sort of grating percussion also emerges near the end (though this is not a track on which percussionist Dominik Mahnig is credited as playing on) as the piece winds down, ending with a whimper.
Mahnig joins the duo on It’s All in the Hips. According to the notes, this piece is supposed to suggest “dance music,” but only a cyberborg with a short circuit could dance to this. The rhythms are purposely played stiffly as the music lurches forward rather than moving in any sort of recognizable rhythm. Mahnig sticks mostly to the snare drum in this one, with occasional cymbals and sticks playing on the drum rim, as pianist and alto saxist eventually pull the tempo down to a slower pace before Nabatov ramps things up again. A dead stop around the four-minute mark leads into a somewhat more melodic approach, but it becomes tangled up in its own knots. Near the very end we finally hear something that simulates a dance rhythm, but very briefly. The music ends in the midst of a phrase.
On Slinky, Grabatov switches to flute, producing more rhythmic atonal lines as Nabatov joins in. One problem that I had with this music was not that each piece wasn’t interesting in itself, but that too much of the music is of the same order. There are only so many mid-range atonal flitters I can absorb or listen to with pleasure. Without a framework for what they are doing, the internal mechanics of the music sound like so much corrupted clockwork, so to speak. Had they given some contrasting music to set up the atonal improvisation, it might have worked better. In this respect, I place much of the onus on pianist Nabatov. He is simply not as adept at creating a framework for the improvisation as Matthew Shipp is in his recordings with Ivo Perelman. This does not mean that Nabatov is not an interesting improviser, only that what he plays should show a bit more structure and lead Gratkowski. With both soloists pretty much meandering all of the time, there are indeed some very interesting and lucid moments, but moments only. It’s like reading the central section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land without having the opening and closing sections as a frame of reference. I hope the reader understands what I mean. It’s almost as if these were incomplete performances. What is here is indeed intermittently brilliant, but no consistently so and, to my ears, not always coherent. Now, if incoherence doesn’t bother you, you’ll enjoy this recording more than I did, but to a large extent I kept waiting for something to come along that would put it in context.
Insofar as the other pieces on this disc are concerned, I actually liked the very frenetic Gradual Enticement (none of which sounded to me either gradual or enticing) for what it was: a complete explosion of psychotic fears in music. In and of itself, it was a very good piece. Following this, I also liked the quiet opening of Sitting One Out, in which electronics and nature sounds seemed to be spliced into the recording. Here, the musicians did give some frame of reference to the music by playing long-held alto notes along with piano sprinkles that developed into a very atmospheric and lyrical exposition in which the fewer, more spaced-out notes bound the music together more coherently. At about 3:30, Nabatov plays some very low-range held notes and chords that resembled the 1970s music of Leif Segerstam. Cautious Invitation reverts to the trio flittering about, with Nabatov flittering about in low-range single notes while Gratkowski plays a slap-tongue bass clarinet. It’s very interesting for a couple of minutes but, again, lacks a feeling of coherence.
The final track, Pocket Found, was to my ears the best piece of all, not just because the musicians finally found a somewhat regular pulse to play to but because within that steadier pulse the free-form ideas of Gratkowski and Nabatov jelled perfectly. There is not only something interesting going on, but it has a direction and a flow from point A to point B.
I liked a lot of what they were doing here, but not all of it. Nonetheless, this is clearly an album worth hearing for the more extraordinary moments.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)
Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz