Sounds in the Wake

Frank Gratkowski, Chris Brown, William Winant — Wake (Red Toucan, 2008)

source: red toucanIt’s interesting how an improv session can develop a personality. Amid all the abstract motion, an overarching voice can poke through, sometimes really obvious (e.g., SUPER FREAKIN’ LOUD!), sometimes more subtle.

Personality-wise, Wake opens in a playful mode but gets more serious afterwards, even during a noisy free-for-all moment on the closing “Archipelago.”

The personality contrast works well, because that first track, “Slide,” is 25 minutes long and quite engaging. After that, there’s a more serious business of sound exploration to be had. “Ambitus” slows to an introspective crawl — although, come to think of it, the boingy sounds of William Winant‘s tuned timpani add an amusing touch. The middle of that 12-minute track features a stretch akin to modern classical music, though, which is probably why I filed this one in the more “serious” bin. It’s still fun, just more studious.

Wake might be an appropriate title, because the three musicians — on sax/clarinet, percussion, and piano — get augmented by Chris Brown using electronics to loop and play back segments of the music, creating new material from the wake of what’s just gone by. (He’s also the one playing piano, often simultaneously with the electronics.) A couple of good moments come on “Archipelago,” when he hammers a high piano chord many times, then brings it back as high-pitched crickets, then as mid-toned industrial gears.

Yes, other people do that (David Torn on Prezens, just to name one) but the mixture of sounds on here is particularly pleasing, just the way all three color their playing to make the electronics feel at home.

The third track, “Scrabble,” is a 10-minute exploration dominated by those electronics, like an otherworldly metallic jungle. Playing along with that theme, Frank Gratkowski sticks to buzzing, flapping sounds on his sax (or possibly clarinet), to the point where the whole thing sounds like it’s been electronically processed. It’s a well managed meshing of instruments.

“Parallax” continues the trio’s serious side with monotoned blares from Gratkowski, little foghorns that croon under hyper, nervous piano from Brown. Come to think of it, Gratkowski is being a bit of a smart-aleck there, playfully messing with his bandmates. Later, Gratkowski gets into a low-key, quizzical mode, and the piano turns more melodic, another touch of new-classical influence.

All three of these players are standouts in improvised music, of course, and they’re able to play with subtlety and wit. But the occasional noisy blowout is good for the pipes, right? “Parallax” peaks with a frenzy of high tones from all three (Winant contributing in the form of metallic clatter), and “Archipelago,” as mentioned above, peaks with the most explosive moments on the album before simmering down to a quiet conclusion, tranquil but with a touch of menace courtesy of a shimmering, metallic curtain of electronics sounds.

Wake comes from a session recorded live at Mills College in 2007. Brown and Winant (who plays a lot of vibraphone here, along with timpani and other percussion) are locals with ties to the college, while Gratkowski (sax, clarinet, bass clarinet) is a frequent Bay Area visitor. The brief liner notes have Gratkowski hopefully promising more from this trio, and I hope they’re able to come through on that.