Frank Gratkowski / Sebi Tramontana “Live at Španski Borci”

Frank Gratkowski (bass clarinet, Bb clarinet, alto saxophone)
Sebi Tramontana (trombone)


Leo Records (LR 779)

1 Revelation 05:03
2 Spirited 04:01
3 Time and Space 03:04
4 Dancer 04:48
5 Singer 03:16
6 You’re tough 04:51
7 Series of dramatic events 05:19
8 Daydream 06:36
9 Deceiver 02:10
10 Nocturne 04:10
11 Enthusiasm 02:13
12 Empathy 05:28
13 Despedida 02:25
14 Homage 05:26
15 Alacrity 02:34

Total duration 62:09

All Compositions by Frank Gratkowski and Sebi Tramontana GEMA.
Recorded live at Španski Borci Theatre, Ljubljana, Slovenia on Feburary 16th 2016 (1-9) and November 6th 2015 (10-15).
Recorded by Iztok Klopotec with a Soundfield MKV(4 capsules) stereo microphone. 
Mastered by Wolfgang Stach, Maarwegstudio 2, Köln.
Cover Artwork by Sebi Tramontana, design by Manuel Heyer.
Photo by Albert Kösbauer.
Produced by Frank Gratkowski and Sebi Tramontana. 

Special thanks to Iztok Klopotec, Tomaz Grom, Iztok Kovac, Manuel Heyer and Wolfgang Stach

Liner notes by Steve Beresford:

I am sometimes haunted by the memory of a video clip of Billy Eckstine on the last Nat ‘King’ Cole television show, broadcast in December1957. Eckstine and Cole sing ‘Rosetta’ and Eckstine plays the trumpet. He then plays an instrument resembling a tenor saxophone, but when we hear it, it’s clear that it’s not a saxophone. It’s some kind of brass instrument, probably a valve trombone, made to look like a saxophone. The video notes say it’s a ‘Jazzphone’. 

I’m always haunted by Flann O’Brien’s novel ‘The Third Policeman’, in which the principle of what Sergeant Pluck calls The Atomic Theory has an important role: “…people who spend most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle…”.

Could the Jazzphone be a result of some Atomic Theory personality mix-up of a saxophone and a trombone? And what about the almost-as-rare slide saxophone – a soprano with a slide enabling long glissandi (often played by Lol Coxhill with the help of a bucket of water)? Is it in the midst of its transition to becoming a trombone? Say, seventy per cent saxophone, thirty per cent trombone?

(Are these ‘Pataphysical musings? Yes, but I find them instructive).

Here – I mean on this CD – we have recordings of pieces by a duet of trombone and various reed instruments. The instruments, whilst not adopting each others’ physical characteristics, have clearly, with the invaluable help of their respective players, borrowed much musical stuff from each other.

Personalities are routinely mixed up, like O’Brien’s bicycles and their riders. Strategies are generated spontaneously.
Structures are created, sometimes carefully, sometimes in a rough and tumble way.
Techniques are adopted and developed until they become a natural part of the player’s repertoire. 
New things are very often discovered: sounds, techniques, ways of relating.

Despite free improvisers stubbornly ignoring the recent demands from a couple of journalists (let’s call them Statler and Waldorf) that:

a.     In the middle of each piece, they should periodically stop playing so they can hear what the other people are playing,


b.     They should not play with anyone else because the other person might play something that makes them think of a pre-existing piece of music,

the standard of free improvising all over the place has continued to rise. This is true, even though it consists of people playing without gaps and even playing with other people. Shocking.

Sensitive listeners will be pleased to know that despite the time Sebi and Frank undoubtedly spend with their respective instruments, they are not slowly turning into them. Unlike some players (i.e. me) Sebi and Frank are well-rounded personalities, just as likely to be influenced by some architecture or a piece of cheese as they are likely to be influenced by other musicians. 

I will throw Statler and Waldorf a bone here and at least mention the great tradition of trombone/reed duos, especially embodied in those involving Roswell Rudd, whose laconic trombonist statements enliven his interplay with Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, John Tchicai. Hear echoes here.

If you are someone just starting to discover this music, this recording provides myriad examples of ways of how things can be put together. Just make a list and try them out! See how areas are investigated for a while in one piece. In the next piece there might be lots of areas covered in a short time. Instruments might not seem to be acknowledging each other and then it will become clear that they have a deeper connection. Things are not rejected just because they are serious. Or funny. 

Or don’t do any such thing. Sit there and listen. Statler and Waldorf may find it hard to admit that free improvisation is fun. But we know different.


CD Review by Steve Day:

I wanted to do this particular review just because the music got under my skin.  It doesn’t purport to be ‘important’ or some kind of stylistic breakthrough, but in an off-hand, modest matinee of a performance it could be just that if you let it.  Live At Španski Borci, is a delicious example of how instantly music can be created, how it can be presented with no frills yet still retain an inherent quality, and how it can spark new things in the ears despite the fact that you have heard these players many times before and believe you understand, or are at least simpatico, with their rationale. 

I suppose, I was also drawn to the cover artwork by Sebi Tramontana – a rough and ready drawing of a man’s drooping arm hanging out of, what? A shell on legs?  A monster mouth?  Mr Tramontana’s own arms are critical to his music.  Trombone players use the whole length of one arm to control their sound and use the other in a positioning V shape, to grip and literally face-up to the instrument. Look carefully at the cover picture and the two short legs of this figure appear tethered together, restricted.  The very opposite of what is happening musically.  And finally, for me, the other delight in relation to the sleeve is the notes. There’s an interesting ‘I’m-hung-up-with-critics’ trailer of words by Steve Beresford.  A humorous  frolic using Flann O’Brien as a starting point.  However, the real deal is the two short paragraphs contributed, firstly by Gratkowski about Tramontana, the second a Tramontana piece describing Gratkowski.  Like the music, they read in the manner of instant, intimate reflections.  As if they’ve been asked to write them on scraps of paper just prior to publication. Frank writes:  “It has a beautiful playfulness… The connection between us is almost mysterious….” Or try this from Sebi:  “Spending my time with him is enriching.  Frank is a bottomless pit.  Human and artistic.  A great musician.  My friend.”  Wouldn’t anyone want to have that said about them from someone they’ve gigged and recorded with for almost twenty years?

Listen to these fifteen “Instant songs”, the longest 5.28, the shortest 2.10, and they feel as if they naturally arrived as the artwork that surrounds them. The titles that peg these duets to the page read like descriptors of each performance – Time and Space, Dancer, Singer, Series of Dramatic Events, Nocturne, Homage.  Each one an individual little story, sometimes boldly burlesque like Series of Dramatic Events, which involves overblown reeds masking as a choir alongside the bone acting the role of both clown and grand narrator.  Others such as Singer and Deceiver, convey a single idea pitched but not played beyond its staying power.

The crack that is Deceiver, edgy, ragged, fractured, could in other hands and hearts end up clogging up the ears, like listening to neighbours arguing about the volume.  That doesn’t happen, instead it’s a glimpse of potential danger before its reached fulfilment.  We don’t know if there’s any long term deceit, meanwhile intrigue is cooked up on the spot.  To taste, bitterness can be soured by something sweet.  Singer contains no vocal song, but you know what they mean, this is a tune that could go either way – to the conservatoire or the coffee-house open-mic night.  And I appreciate the title is given as a singular, not plural.  This is tea for two taken from a common tea pot (in a manner of speaking). A song sung through two horns-of-plenty. Another

special quality about this recording is that it harks back to the work of other musicians who have also walked this lonely road.  At no time is there impersonation, yet Frank Gratkowski touches on the spirit of people like Elton Dean, Lol Coxhill and Mike Osbourne. 

As Gratkowski/Tramontana press into the sound pad of their instruments it’s as if the well-tempered trombone of the great Roswell Rudd has broken free once more to take up his place alongside John Tchicai or maybe even, Steve Lacy.  These were all touch and go pioneers with personal vocabularies.  Technicians, certainly, but more importantly great non-vocalised storytellers. Among the final twenty minutes of the Španski Borci performance Gratkowski and Tramonta seem to hold up a joint discussion of reed and trombone language as if it were a trophy.  They have cracked their own code and this is their simple reward.  To play the gig. 

Empathy begins with smears of tongue and breath control flushed through metal.  Frank Gratkowski is the one with the lead lines, Sebi Tramonta doing his own thing.  “I’m in agreement with you, Frank.”  Yet forever Sebi is lengthening his arm out to try to find a scale beyond the bottom of the bone.  By the final fifth minute they have reached common ground.  They play out their joint satisfaction.  A couple of minutes further down the line this odd couple embark on a Homage of whistles, coughs and mouthpiece distortions.  What kind of Homage is this? And then they settle like two old birds on a perch.  To reference Flann O’Brien again, its two birds swimming on a perch rather than swinging on one.  I find it a lovely, lively moment. This is the wonderful “bottomless pit” of music.  I kept my tea in the cup; little in the way of tunes, the bare essentials of chromatic truth, but in their place is enacted a fertile playfulness of madcap magic and kindred spirit.  It’s true, I didn’t tap my feet or dance to my boiling kettle.  I can’t hum a melody line or give you the chord changes.  If music depends on these things to define the rationale then pass up on Frank Gratkowski and his buddy, Sebi Tramontana, it is way, way too late to change them now.  On the other hand, if you feel like taking an hour out to genuinely feast on a couple of masters of improvisation here’s an excellent place to begin.

Click here for details and a short sample.

Click here for a video of Gratkowski and Tramontana playing live in December 2009

Steve Day