Duos and Trios by vibraphonist Sergio Armaroli, trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini and soprano and sopranino saxophonist Harri Sjöström is a free-ranging set of improvised music for small groups made in Biella in Italy at the invitation of Armaroli. A frequent musical partner of Schiaffini’s, Armaroli called Sjöström in from Berlin to join him and Schiaffini; these three trios and nine duos were the result. The duos are framed by the trios, which make up the opening track as well as the final two tracks. It’s the duos that provide the album’s backbone and aesthetic as well as literal center. Armaroli and Sjöström may have been new to each other, but their chemistry is unmistakably good and consequently their interplay is assured and coherent. Armaroli is quick to respond to Sjöström’s fleet, fragmentary lines with single-note runs in parallel rhythms, or to set out a foundation of restlessly moving chords. When Schiaffini joins them, the addition of his voice rounds out the collective sound with a robust presence in the lower register and a layer of contrapuntal complexity. Like Sjöström, Schiaffini makes liberal use of extended techniques; his brassy timbres complement Sjöström’s own sharp-edged tone in an unexpected family resemblance.
The Balderin Sali Variations aren’t a series of related pieces derived from a beginning motif but rather an ad hoc orchestra of eleven comprising three generations of improvisers from Finland, Germany, Italy, England, Austria, Poland, Norway and Mexico. The orchestra was put together on the occasion of the 2018 Soundscapes and Soundportraits Festival, which took place in September in Helsinki. The festival’s founder and the ensemble’s organizer is Harri Sjöström, a soprano saxophonist originally from Finland but now residing in Berlin. Sjöström, one of the representatives of European free improvisation’s second generation, is joined here by saxophonist Evan Parker, violinist/electronics artist Philipp Wachsmann, drummer Paul Lovens and bassist Teppo Hauta-aho of the founding/first generation, as well as six other musicians drawn from the second and third generations. A reunion of an extended family of sorts, and one in which the family demonstrates a strikingly intuitive sense of communication.
The most striking thing about the music on this two-CD set is its intelligent handling of space and color—striking, but not surprising, as that is one of the hallmarks of European free improvisation. The ensemble accomplishes this by setting up relationships that naturally vary the densities and timbres that come into play. The thirteen tracks are bookended by improvisations for the full ensemble; in between are improvisations for sub-groupings in sizes ranging from duos to quintets. Some of these subgroupings make for inspired instrumental combinations: soprano saxophone and violin; drums, trombone, and piano; soprano saxophone and quarter-tone accordion.
Another inspired, multi-generational combination of musicians is to be found on The Treasures Are, a duo recording from Sjöström and the younger cellist Guilherme Rodrigues. All of the music on the recording presumably was improvised, but the quality of the interplay is such that parts sound as if they had been composed prior to the performance. Much of the credit for this goes to Rodrigues, who seems largely to be responding to Sjöström’s inventive leads throughout much of the recording. Rodrigues has an almost telepathic ability to complete Sjöström’s phrases, create lucid, coherent harmonies from Sjöström’s melodies, and spin Sjöström’s lines into impromptu canons. Both Sjöström and Rodrigues take the music to many places–from abstract expressionist squeals and squeaks, through freely atonal lyricism, to quasi-conventional harmony—without losing a sense of continuity or stalling for time. In sum, a quite beautiful performance of contemporary European improvised music from two highly attuned players.
The cosmopolitan nature of improvised music has been an established fact for decades now. Two new recordings show improvisation providing a common meeting ground for musicians from North and South America, Europe and Africa.
Double the Brim features the international quintet of Canadian pianist Karoline Leblanc, Brazilian saxophonist Yedo Gibson, and trumpeter Luís Vicente, cellist Miguel Mira and drummer Paolo J. Ferreira Lopes of Portugal. The group play an emphatic, expansive improvised music informed by classic free jazz. Although there are times when lead voices break through the collective sound, the majority of the music consists of an urgent polyphony in which foreground and background exchange places fluidly and one musician’s solo line imperceptibly mutates into an embellishment of another’s. Leblanc’s hyperkinetic pianism and Ferreira Lopes’ energetic drumming provide a solid foundation for these six intense tracks.
Like the ensemble on Double the Brim, Up and Out is a quintet, this time of five musicians from five different countries. The group was assembled ten years ago by Berlin-based, Finnish-born soprano and sopranino saxophonist Harri Sjöström and includes violinist Philipp Wachsmann, a native of Uganda; the Mexican vibraphonist Emilio Gordoa; double bassist Matthias Bauer, from Germany; and the Norwegian drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen.
In contrast to Double the Brim’s hot expressionism, Up and Out’s style of improvisation is emotionally cooler and concerned with space. The music is made up of collective improvisation oriented toward timbral interplay and changeable textural densities. Much of the textural drama comes from the group’s expert crafting of rising and falling dynamics and mastery of restrained playing. The relationship between the violin and saxophones is especially compelling: a beautiful duet in the middle of the second improvisation highlights the instruments’ similarity of compass at the same time that it emphasizes their differences in timbre. Sjöström is particularly attentive to the sound quality of the soprano and sopranino saxophones, often softening their strident voices with mutes; both Wachsmann and Bauer make best use of their instruments’ range of plucked and bowed sounds. The final piece on the album, Wachsmann’s composition Three Draft Pistons, is a fittingly sparse and episodic recreation of the understated, sound-oriented improvisation developing in the UK in the 1980s.