4. Bâtons Rompus
5. Foreplay / Vorspiel
7. Trenches / Tranches
8. Final Bounce
all compositions by Frank Gratkowski (Gema), Fred Van Hove (SABAM) and Tony Oxley (PRS/MCPS)
recorded live Nov. 14th, 2000 at “Erholungshaus Bayer” in Leverkusen, Germany
“Plans are all right sometimes,” I said. “And sometimes just stirring things up is all right – if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes to the top.” “That ought to be good for another drink,” she said. – Dashiell Hammett, from Red Harvest
Balance struck between calculation and risk: The calculated risk. The most exciting improvised music stakes its life on finding such a balance. On locating a meeting point between preparation and the unexpected, between a clearly intended motion and an impulsive action or reaction. What exactly does it mean to take a calculated risk? The term suggests that one weighs an outcome, checks out the possibilities if something goes one way or another. Such a move accepts the inherent unsureness of the result, the potential for backfiring and on the other hand the upside, the possible fruits of success. Most of all, it means that the end of the causal chain is not yet known, even if it is considered. Calculation means that one isn’t trying something haphazardly, stirring wildly and without care; risk means that one accepts that something might go wrong or that it might go in a direction one doesn’t predict.
In free music, if this final possibility is missing then all the tension goes out of the action. Sounds become mannered, flaccid, inconsequential. Improvisers need an edge to look over, a precipice to ponder, and a tight-line to walk out onto; otherwise, improvising has no deeper meaning. In that case, it’s nothing more than an efficient, time-economical means of composing. As I hear it, the negotiation of space in improvised music is one of the trickiest areas in which to balance calculation and risk. Leaving room is, of course, in itself a great art, in music and in social discourse alike. It takes some degree of maturity and self-assurance to understand that all open spots don’t need to be automatically filled up, that silence can indeed be golden. But on the flip side it’s easy for space to become precious, for single sounds to be fetishized, for silence to grow tyrannical. One small group of improvisers over the last half-decade or so has come to embrace this ultra-minimalist approach – I’m thinking of Radu Malfatti and some of the more radical Austrians. What these musicians have attempted is certainly provocative and against-the-grain, but I fear that it has quite problematic ends, much of which has little to do with improvising and most of which has primarily to do with control, personality, ideology and aesthetic purism.
But this doesn’t mean that all attempts to deal sensitively with space are necessarily doomed. Take GratHovOx, a trio with a sensational ability to open spaces up in their sound-making activities, to leave room and appreciate the delicacies of one another’s musical choices. Here we find Fred Van Hove, who has an impeccable instrument attached to each side of his head – astounding ears for harmonic implications and a lightning-fast mechanism for translating such data into a response.
Tony Oxley, like Van Hove one of the music’s great originals, is a musician who proves from one context to the next that he can adapt to any circumstance and provide something fascinating and unique for his colleagues and audience alike. Consider how different his playing here is from his voluble and surging work with Cecil Taylor or his highly responsive playing with Alexander von Schlippenbach. With GratHovOx, I hear something of his work as a visual artist reflected; he is especially sensitive to color and nuance and the way that a small element can shift much larger aspects of a composition.
Oxley and Van Hove: What a high level of detail there is in the interplay between these two wonderful innovators, something so inspirational in how fresh and without clichŽ their collaboration feels.
Generations younger than both of his colleagues, Frank Gratkowski is nonetheless a reed player capable of turning heads. I remember standing with drummer Paul Lovens at the Empty Bottle in Chicago in 1997, during Gratkowski’s first encounter with Van Hove in an ad hoc “surprise set,” and registering Lovens’ appreciation especially of Gratkowski’s clarinet playing. He possesses a rare sound on that instrument, rich and warm but penetrating. Listen to the astonishing glissandi he’ll sometimes accomplishes, the perfectly placed long-tones, the harsh harmonics and supple full notes. Van Hove and he work brilliantly together, a model of teamwork – they seem to possess a similar temperament, sometimes methodical, sometimes bursting forth with volatile outpourings.
The calculated risk. Sure, now and then a plan is what you need – decide in advance how things will proceed, calculate, execute. But sometimes just stirring things up is all right. If you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your ears open so you’ll hear what you want when it comes to the top.
– John Corbett, Chicago, May 2002
Review in “Allabout Jazz” by Glenn Astarita