First, the story. Every now and again, I do a news search for Tim Berne — partly to see if he’s up to something that I don’t know about, but also to find like-minded artists. Berne’s name comes up often when a creatively-minded musician’s influences get listed, and he doesn’t get tossed around as lightly as John Zorn. (Zorn is apt but tends to be a go-to guy for music journalists who aren’t really into this stuff.)
Thus did I find the name of Yoni Kretzmer, an Israeli saxophonist. A search on the Downtown Music Gallery site revealed a CD of Kretzmer’s. On a visit to NYC, I asked about it; DMG had mostly sold out of the copies he’d left them while on tour, but proprietor Bruce Lee Gallanter, who knows the store better than I know my disheveled office, tracked down a stray copy in the back. It was a lucky break, because as with a lot of creative musicians, Kretzmer’s strongest distribution network is his own two feet. DMG wasn’t expecting another shipment any time soon.
Kretzmer is a tenor saxophonist with a flowing, agile style that certainly shares some colors with Berne. You can hear it early on in this CD, with an exciting, darting solo alongside Daniel Feingold’s drums on “2-700,” just the two of them, bright and joyous.
The rest of the band is a string trio: cello, bass — and, yes, viola. They’re the rhythm section, defining the unusual and very enjoyable sound on the album.
Their parts truly are closer to a jazz rhythm section than a string quartet. Listen to the wandering, upbeat composed line on “2-700,” twisty and pleasant. You could easily picture a downtown NYC band performing with a sax and guitar. It does remind me a bit of Tim Berne’s music.
I don’t mean to make it sound like Kretzmer is a Berne clone. He’s not. It’s just a side effect of the way I discovered the CD. Plus, the artwork reminds me of Steve Byram, Berne’s artist of choice.
Look, here’s a non-Bernian moment: “Drunken Morning,” a flowery composition where the strings take the lead, opening with some elegant cello soloing and a gossamer sax accompaniment. It’s elegant, respectful, and mellow — and yet has an undercurrent of attitude. Little tricks between the cello notes — tiny glissandos or liberties taken with timing — show off a jazzy bent.
If none of this sounds out-there enough for you, “Mess in A” sometimes lives up to its name — in a good way. The track ends up in a space with viola and cello playing a deliciously tense set of chords, the backdrop for Kretzmer’s soloing and some spare but swinging bass comping by Ehud Etun. “She Knows” starts off with a stark improvisation — slashing strings, wandering sax, quietly rumbling drums. To me, it’s the first track that really captures the stark grayness of the album cover. It gives away to a calm tune that drifts across a slow march rhythm.
I know I just said the strings don’t play like a classical quartet, but some of their best moments come from that kind of precision. One crescendo in “Harder” includes the viola and cello sawing away at chaotic high notes, but doing so in lock step.
I like Kretzmer’s playing a lot, too. I like his control and his creativity, his attention to melody, and the careful placement of rasping or buzzing notes, just enough to add edge.
He’s playing at Downtown Music Gallery on Oct. 10. If you’re in New York, maybe you can hit him up for some CDs then.
UPDATE: Well, according to this, Kretzmer has moved to NYC and has a trio album available. So, now you’ve got no excuses.