Hugo Carvalhais – Nebulosa CF 201)
Michael Formanek – The Rub And Spare Change (ECM 2167)
Leadership’s loss is a sideman’s gain as these quartet sessions demonstrate. That’s because alto saxophonist Tim Berne, who hasn’t made a CD under his own name for about half a decade, instead adds his skills to these bassist-led quartet sessions. Instructively as well, while one combo is completed by Americans with whom Berne has often played in the past, the other is made up of younger Portuguese Jazzers who recently toured with the American reedist.
Nebulosa – and its five-part title suite –is designed to show off the composing and improvising skills of bassist Hugo Carvalhais, who along with pianist Gabriel Pinto, often backs singer Maria João Mendes. Carvalhais also plays electronics on this CD and Pinto synthesizer; drummer Mário Costa the fourth man.
The Rub And Spare Change on the other hand is a completely acoustic showcase for six compositions and the magisterial bass playing of Michael Formanek, whose role leading the Jazz orchestra at Baltimore`s Peabody Conservatory of Music leaves him little time for extracurricular activities. Working on-and-off with Berne since the early 1990s, after having backed everyone from saxophonist Stan Getz to trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, this is the first CD Formanek has lead since 1998. The other players aren’t exactly neophytes either. Drummer Gerald Cleaver has worked with saxophonists as different as Lotte Anker and Roscoe Mitchell, while he and pianist Craig Taborn have both been part of Berne’s and Mitchell’s regular working bands.
Familiar with each others’ technical skills the four players on The Rub And Spare Change are able to move from Funk to Impressionism and back again seemingly without breaking a sweat. This is most noticeable on the CD’s most extensive track, the 17-minute plus “Tonal Suite”. In truth as atonal as it is tonal, the piece encompasses several movements beginning with an exposition of walking bass and drum backbeats accompanying Berne’s irregularly voiced split tones as they and Taborn’s piano plucks weave around one another. While Berne keeps reed biting, the pianist’s next variant includes key clipping and hard-paced arpeggios, which while advancing chromatically also motivate the saxophonist’s intervallic lines into downward-slurring split tones. Well paced drum beats and understated bull fiddle plucks contribute their own percussive variations, so that with the backing taken care of, the saxophonist and pianist can harmonize moving lines from agitato to moderato and from staccato to legato. A final variant with a teasing false ending, features extended cadenzas from Taborn. Then a traditional recap of the head precedes a trebly piano coda.
Although he takes no extended solos, Formanek, emphasizes his compositions here. And well he should, for their range is wide. “Too Big To Fail” is another exercise in multiple, multiphonics, while the title track is a convincing Freebop piece, built around soulful tension and release. As Cleaver rhythmically locks down an elastic shuffle beat, Berne vibrates the head with chirps and side-slipping tones while Taborn’s low-frequency strummed chords expand to define the piece as a skipping etude.
As sardonically played as its title suggests, “Too Big To Fail” mixes bass string pops, drum press rolls and rasping piano cadenzas as the saxophonist elaborates the theme in the tenor register. Before the tune is conclusively redefined contrapuntally, the pianist’s contrasting dynamics and repeated chord clusters plus Berne’s alternating of altissimo squeals and moderato split tones suggest a narrative almost as harsh and dyspeptic as what the American investment industry faced a couple of years ago.
With Nebulosa serendipitously recorded in same month as the other session, Carvalhais’ core combo is given added impetus by hired gun Berne. Although the title composition is a six-part suite of sorts, the CD’s introductory track and others – most played solely by the trio– surrounding the suite. Berne however doesn’t really start experimenting with split tones until “Part III” of the suite, before that contenting himself with paced twitters and splutters plus irregularly pitched obbligatos in his solos.
For his part, Pinto distinguishes himself by splitting his exposition between atmospheric synthesizer wave forms – matched by ululating werewolf whistles and signal-processed quivers from Carvalhais’ electronics – to more studied impressionistic piano chording. From a groove-oriented beginning, the suite affiliates itself with modulated Bop-stylings in its second section, only to have Berne’s snorting split tones and altissimo runs redefine the third part.
By the time “Nebulosa Part IV” makes its appearance, Berne’s chromatic mastication is joined by hearty double bass stops, thumps and jumps from Carvalhais, plus Costa’s flams, drags and distinctive cow bell whacks. Eventually the multi-part composition is taken out by the trio alone, as airy piano arpeggios and supple floating bass lines give way to tougher, double-stopped, but definitely un-funky rhythm, squeaky wiggling electronic pulses and concluding stops from the bassist.
Other than the suite, the most noteworthy outing is Pinto’s “North”, whose syncopation meanders into “Maiden Voyage” territory. Despite this thematic suggestion the composition is still an original statement that harmonizes triple counterpoint among airy, dynamic glissandi from the piano, pinched, intense vibrato from the saxophonist and unforced, but relentless rhythms from the bassist and drummer.
With Berne the connecting factor between them, both CDs have much to offer. The Rub And Spare Change features him in the company of familiar players, while Nebulosa links him with younger players who will help shape Jazz in the future. As good as his playing his here, one would hope nonetheless that recording as the leader of a session is still part of his game plan.