Niklas Barnö, Joel Grip & Didier Lasserre - Snus

Ken Waxman, JazzWord

Using the expressive properties of a trumpet as a lead instrument with only rhythmic and chordal accompaniment is a challenging task for any brass player Yet as these CDs prove, two Northern European trumpeters have done just that with noteworthy results.

More impressionistic of the two, Pieces for a Husky Puzzle, finds Schleswig, Germany-born Thomas Heberer using a quarter-tone trumpet to blend with the low-key cadences of pianist Andreas Schmidt from Berlin – who additionally composed the seven inter-related tracks here – and the understated rattles and scrapes of Swiss-born, Berlin-based drummer Samuel Rohrer.

Considering the other situations in which these players shine, this trio affiliation is as startlingly unforced as it flowing. Schmidt’s affiliation is with singers as well as atmospheric players such as bassist Gary Peacock and saxophonist Lee Konitz. Heberer works with choreographers and pianist Aki Takase – a Schmidt influence – and is a member of both Amsterdam’s ICP orchestra and the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra.

Setting himself a more difficult task, meanwhile, Stockholm-based trumpeter Niklas Barnö uses the Paris-recorded Snus to skitter and scatter around the edges of free-form improvising, abetted by with fellow Swede bassist Joel Grip and Bordeaux-born drummer Didier Lasserre. Lacking even the cushion of 88 piano keys, the three perform admirably. Simpatico cohesion is something Grip and Barnö evolved when both were members of the Jolly-Boat Pirates group. As for Lasserre, he’s an inventive percussionist par excellence, able to fit into any band, be it free sounds with saxophonist Daunik Lazro and bassist Benjamin Duboc, or delicate piano-led miniatures with Ronnie Lynn Patterson or Jobic Le Masson.

Grip’s powerful string-thumping is all over the CD’s seven tracks, as are Barnö’s fortissimo blasts and truncated growls. But with the drummer committed to cymbal snaps and rim shots while eschewing power percussion, the improvisations never spiral out of control. That’s self-control, not self-limitation, so while each musician knows exactly where he is at all times during the improvisations, the sonic links to Chamber Jazz are as distant as the links to Energy Music. Instead discursive trumpet roars, rooted bass plucks plus sauntering snare clip-clops and circling cymbal strokes keep the program on an even keel.

A Barnö showcase, “Smoking Flavour” finds the trumpeter’s pitch-sliding whimpers dominating the first-third of the proceedings until the drummer’s inverted sweeps and drags plus rhythmic popping from Grip’s strings are heard. Evolving in triple counterpoint – Barnö adagio, Lasserre allegro and Grip andante – the trio members finally separate, with Grip solidly walking, Lasserre ratcheting adagio strokes and nerve beats and Barnö’s voicing rubato and melodic. As the drummer creates another texture with loosened lugs, the piece ends with triple-strumming from Grip and brassy flourishes from the trumpeter.

Barnö’s whinnying cries and smeary triplets are matched contrapuntally throughout “Aroma” by Grip’s steady bass slaps and Lasserre’s intermittent rolls and cymbal resonation. Still for all the sandpaper-like skittering on top of various drum skins by the percussionist and the staccato friction produced by the bassist’s angled string work, there’s enough space left for grace notes from the trumpeter and a conclusion built around downward brass textural smudges.

In contrast, the tracks on Pieces for a Husky Puzzle are almost all cursive, with gentling brassy flutters sharing space with low-frequency dynamics from the piano and often the barest hint of drum top pressure. Chromatically the puzzle pieces displayed by each player take on the characterizations of chessmen, with an organic strategy soon apparent in Schmidt’s writing. Evolving frequently in different pitches and tempos, the three still manage to fuse during different intermezzos.

Languid, lightly voiced consonant chords from the pianist dominate tracks such as “Puzzle Piece No 3”, while simultaneously Rohrer bends time with rebounds and drags. Heberer – rubato – exposes every quarter tone. When the trumpeter’s tremolo runs speed up, so do the constant keyboard strokes. Similarly “Puzzle Piece No 5” leaves the linear harmonies intact as Heberer’s vibrating grace notes twist and turn, Rohrer rattles and pops and Schmidt breaks up his low-frequency syncopation with the occasional run. When the trumpeter’s output heads upwards with strained wah-wahs, he’s met with a restrained shuffle beat from the drums and buzzing piano chords.

Profound without being precious, the chamber dynamics with which Schmidt composes – and he and the others interpret – prove that free form and atmospheric improvisation can be twinned. Meanwhile the members of Snus integrate the pieces of their puzzle in an equally unique fashion. Each trio’s CD has much to offer.