It continues to amaze me that Frank Gratkowski isnt recognized as a giant of improvised music. For going on two decades, the reed player and composer has been honing his skills as part of the vibrant improvisational music scene in Köln, Germany, where this disc was recorded on November 7, 2001. Active with fellow Germans like Georg Graewe, with whom Gratkowski has recorded often and in various configurations, he is also widely known to fellow musicians internationally (though criminally undersung by press and audiences alike). Hes worked in Klaus Konigs big band, in Bill Dixons Enchanted Messenger Orchestra, with Fred van Hove, John Lindberg, Gerry Hemingway, and many others. Indeed, Hemingway has been an integral part of Gratkowskis small-group composing and playing in recent years. The phenomenal drummer was on the trio recording Flume Factor and on the quartet Kollaps, featuring the same band that reconvenes for this date: Gratkowski on alto sax, clarinet, and contrabass clarinet, Wolter Wierbos on trombone, Dieter Manderscheid on bass, and Hemingway on drums.
Anyone familiar with these players knows that theyre all monsters on their instruments. But rather than simply stand up and blow for an hour a strategy which wears ever thinner to these ears they set themselves a challenging course of navigating Gratkowskis idiosyncratic compositions (just enough structure to facilitate, not enough to constrain). The evident model here in terms of compositional and instrumental language is Anthony Braxtons great quartet of the mid-1970s (with Dave Holland, Barry Altschul, and either George Lewis or Kenny Wheeler on brass). The heart of the music is in the incredible synergy between the horns where Gratkowskis serpentine reed playing, particularly his round-tone and limber clarinets, sound especially good with Wierbos raucous bone expressions. But make no mistake: Hemingway and Manderscheid are equals in every sense, and in no way play merely support roles. For example, "Loom" opens with rhythmic cues (similar to the pulse tracks which are integral to much of Braxtons quartet music) expertly brought off by bass and drums, while on the impressionistic "Blonk" the two generate textures which slither between breath sounds, slap-tongues, and other horn emanations. Equally moody are the albums two dirge-like pieces, "Fenster" (which also boasts some tight harmonies) and the long closing title track (an excellent example of restraint and focus). But perhaps nowhere does this quartets synthesis come together so well as on "Homage." Its wonderfully open-chord progression and lines, framed articulately by bass drums and trombone contribute a wry pulse track commentary against superb clarinet (what range, what tone) set the stage for a slow intensification, until the piece erupts into a fractious freebop. It's marvelous stuff, the high point of a delightful record. Seek this out, along with Gratkowskis other recordings.
By Jason Bivins
Dusted Magazine in August 2003