Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Javier Girotto + Alexander Balanescu + Zlatko Kaučič                                        ©2017 2017 Iztok Zupan

Back in the day, the map of improvised music in Europe had a lot of blank spaces, particularly in the continent’s southeastern quadrant. However, it is simplistic to chalk up the lag in recognizing the vitality of the jazz and improvised music of this region to Cold War isolation and the madness loosed by the breakup of Yugoslavia, stereotypes undermined then and now by the example of Slovenia. Historically, Slovenia’s Italian border facilitated an influx of jazz artists that, for starters, has sustained the international stature of the Ljubljana Jazz Festival for going on 60 years. More importantly, it gave Slovenian musicians collaborative opportunities unavailable to their counterparts in the region. The matriculation of Slovenian musicians in the international arena has been slow, but seems to have reached critical mass in recent years, reflected by the diverse and distinctive music of pianist Kaja Draksler, guitarist Samo Salamon, and others.

Whenever art blooms, it is important to consider the spade work by artists who, despite being respected, even heralded at home, were too long on the margins of the big picture.  Zlatko Kaučič has been at it for nearly 40 years. Collaborating with a long, intriguing list of musicians, beginning with Kenny Wheeler, Peter Brötzmann and Gianluigi Trovesi, Kaučič has amassed a discography that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with that of any active European, spanning free improvisations and large scale works integrating choirs and string ensembles. He has a particular knack for creating unlikely tandems in his ensembles and creating against-type situations for them. Pairing Steve Lacy and Paul McCandless on the first 2-disc volume of Zlati Čoln The Golden Boat (released in 2002 on Splasch(h)) was a brilliant counter-intuitive stroke, particularly having them solo back-to-back on a strings-buoyed ballad.

Like Lacy, Kaučič frequently turns to soul-penetrating poetry for lyrics and singular singers like Irene Aebi, Saadet Türköz, and baritone Robert Vrčon (the latter two are featured on Kaučič’s 3-CD 30th Anniversary Concerts on Splasc(h)). Zlati Čoln was inspired by Slovenian poet Srečko Kosovel, who died in his mid-twenties in the mid-1920s. The starkness of Kosovel’s poetry and backstory may seem at odds with the convivial Kaučič. Yet, in this part of the world, the dead live on and blood remains in the soil forever. It is therefore unsurprising that Kaučičresponds to these axioms of regional culture in major works like Zvočina Poliaza T.S. for jazz ensemble, string orchestra and trumpeter Herb Robertson (RTV SLO, an imprint of Radio Slovenija), a 2009 dedication to a recently-deceased journalist barely in his ‘30s, and Tolminski Punt featuring Brötzmann and a string trio (Splasc(h)), a 2005 work inspired by a brutally suppressed peasant revolt in the early 18th Century.

Although Kaučič’s Slovenian roots are central to his aesthetic, he, like Slovenians in the main, now see their homeland in a larger European context. Recorded in 2011, December Soul (NotTwo) spoke to this as persuasively as any recent recording. A trio date with pianist Stefano Battaglia and bassist Paolino dalla Porta, Kaučič leavens pristine Eurojazz lyricism with visceral passages that all but grab the listener by the throat. In addition to making the case for Kaučič’s continental stature, it is a reminder that Battaglia, who has a gift of deftly bringing undercurrents to the surface, has been unduly lost in the pack of European pianists, and dalla Porta is a more compelling improviser than suggested by his current membership in Oregon. Leading a piano trio is a tricky proposition for a drummer; if he is too out front, he’s showboating, but, conversely, he risks disappearing in the mix if he overemphasizes tasteful understatement. On December Soul, Kaučič hits the sweet spot like few of his contemporaries.

The Kraków-based NotTwo has been in the forefront of redrawing the map of 21st Century European jazz, so its unsurprising that they are documenting Kaučič’s work with Disorder at the Border, a collective trio with saxophonist/clarinetist Danielle D’Agaro and bassist Giovanni Maier, and tenor saxophonist Cene Resnik’s Watch for Dogs, a trio also pairing Kaučič and Maier. Disorder’s Plays Ornette was one of the standout releases of 2016, as it successfully extracted the compositional kernels from Coleman’s domineering voice. Although the cry is central to D’Agaro’s saxophone solos, he is not a harmolodic acolyte, relying on the taut development of materials instead of the vaulting phrases trademarked by Coleman – being an agile, nuance-favoring clarinetist supplies further distance. Maier can be compared to David Izenzon only because both bassists would never be mistaken for Charlie Haden; and there is no precedent in Coleman’s recordings for Kaučič’s melding of delicate ornamentation, cheerfully busy clatter, and grindstone-like approach to swing, the latter always sharpening the forward momentum of the music. Avoiding Coleman’s classics like the plague gives the trio additional latitude in distinctively imprinting the material. With this disc, Disorder at the Border set a high bar for avant-garde repertoire-based projects.

The tenor-bass-drums configuration is enjoying renewed vitality on both sides of the Atlantic, J.D, Allen and Rodrigo Amado being representative of how to encompass the two seemingly disparate elements the format demands – filigreed allusiveness and strong gestures. Resnik does this admirably throughout Shades of Color, employing everything from the floating forward motion associated with Warne Marsh, the pad-popping and the buzzing, braying and fluttering textures perfected by John Butcher, and just about everything in between. In addition to his subtle traps work, Kaučič’s tactical ability to place minute details with scraped cymbals, rubbed drum heads and little instruments in a quickly evolving soundscape is central to the music’s coherence, connecting Resnik and Maier’s lustrous low notes, ear-pricking harmonics and expert arco. Watch for Dogs is a trio to watch going forward.

There remains two tributaries of European improvised music – jazz and everything else, particularly classical music. Kaučič taps into the latter with two trios featuring violinists steeped in the music of different centuries. Maya Homburger’s well-documented expertise in the music of J.S, Bach and H.I.F. Biber is arguably at the root of her abilities as an improviser, her every utterance exuding an aura of an earlier era when music more overtly strove for theophany. Responding to the recent Syrian exodus, which resulted in tens of thousands trudging through Slovenia to uncertainty, Kaučič, Homburger and bassist Barry Guy recorded Without Borders (Fundacja Słuchaj). Although the tone of this program of duos and trios is largely harrowing and desolate – Kaučič’s occasional use of small pan-like gongs, metal objects and electric zither effectively compounds Guy’s otherworldly textures to these ends – Guy’s splendid “Peace Piece” and an album-closing reading of Steve Lacy’s stately “Art” briefly break through like patches of cloud-filtered sunlight between bands of a storm. Music that affirms the dignity of the suffering – isn’t that what the blues are all about?

Alexander Balanescu’s contemporary music credentials are extensive –  stints with Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars and the Arditti Quartet, leading the Balanescu Quartet, and working with such theater and film luminaries as Pina Bausch and Peter Greenaway. The violinist has shone in encounters with improvisers for decades, his playing on the three Incus CDs documenting the 1991 Company Week being the case in point. On East West Daydreams (Sazas), a two-disc collection of improvisations with Kaučič and woodwinds player Javier Girotto, perhaps best known for his long membership in Aires Tango, Balanescu’s Romanian roots are in the foreground. With Kaučič’s “ground drums” (a more evocative name for hand drums, though it excludes his cymbals and other small instruments) supplying a mix of high-velocity and nimble rhythms. and Girotto’s soprano matching the violinist in zeal and chops, the music throughout has a baseline of brilliance that few ensembles sustain beyond several minutes. (Granted: the material was cherry-picked from five concerts.)  East West Daydreams brings renewed relevance to Europe’s articulation of world jazz during the 1970s.  

For the 20th anniversary edition of the Jazz Cerkno festival in 2015, Kaučič convened the 12-piece Cerkno Jubileum Orchestra. Kaučič’s compositions on Zvočni Sejalec (Sazas) are stylistically varied, utilizing traditional music, rock, and avant-garde jazz. The ensembles are tack-sharp, and there’s a slew of strong soloists, including Maier, Resnik, trumpeter Gabriele Cancelli, vibraphonist Luigi Vitale and electric guitarist Vitja Balžalorsky. With two percussionists, Kaučič relegates himself to directing, crouching off to the side of the stage in a way that recalls Vienna Art Orchestra’s Mathias Rüegg. However, comparisons end there; instead of the straight-faced delivery of erudite conceits, Kaučič goes for the heart and the gut, as he does in each of his many projects.

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