Stone Quartet - Live at Vision Festival

Ken Waxman, JazzWord

(reviewed along with MMM Quartet - Live at the Metz Arsenal)

Two high-quality CDs, recorded in a live setting with French bassist Joëlle Léandre as the unifying factor, are superficially similar in intent and personnel. Yet the multiple strategies each quartet brings to the extended selections demonstrate how unique sounds can result even in the most comfortable of surroundings.

Live at the Vision Festival captures the triumphant performance of what might be called Léandre’s New York quartet, filled out by trumpeter/flutist Roy Campbell, pianist Marilyn Crispell and violist Mat Maneri. Although recorded in France, Live at the Metz Arsenal, joins the bassist with two colleagues who teach at California’s Mills College – Alvin Curran on electronics and piano, best known for his notated work and membership in the MEV ensemble, and guitarist Fred Frith, whose entry into improv came through his Art-Rock bands like Henry Cow. Although MMM could stand for “MillsMusicMafia”, some Continental spice joins the West Coast greenery in the presence of Swiss soprano and tenor saxophonist Urs Leimgruber, who has been in other bands with Léandre, including Quartet Noir which also included Crispell.

Fundamentally it’s the discursive oscillations plus conspicuous musical samples from Curran’s electronics plus Frith’s reshaped and flanged guitar distortion that define the interactions here with Léandre’s consistent arco swipes and Leimgruber’s circular breathing adding to the resulting polyphony. Sporadically unforeseen connections take place, as when the saxophonist’s staccato trills gradually meld with swelling and electronic pulses; or when chiming guitar licks and slurred, bagpipe-like drones from the saxophonist combine into a solid line; or when the bassist puts aside her stentorian string pumping for agile soprano-pitched yodeling, matching the snatches of broadcast vocals captured by Curran’s hardware.

Nonetheless Curran’s tremolo pianism is as essential to shaping the improvisations as his crackling and fluctuating wave forms. Should signal-processed delays or synthesized sequences not underlie the acoustic work, than sonic clues occasionally arise from string plucks or plucks emanating from the piano’s innards. Other times, swelling, sampled orchestral passages are met with percussive slaps and stops from both string players; while discordant output signals spawn equally discordant spetrofluctuation and multiphonic reed bites from the saxophonist. By the final variation, pastoral interludes are pushed aside as the mercurial sound development hardens into a squirming broken-octave finale replete with jangling electronic synthesis. Curran swiftly pounds his keys; Léandre buzzes sul ponticello runs from the bottom of her string set; Frith solidifies his chromatic rasgueado; and Leimgruber’s twisted shrilling turns to strained vibrations.

As acoustically balanced as the MMM Quartet is dependent on discordant electronics; the Stone Quartet still makes as much use of Crispell decisive comping as Curran’s skilled ostinato was put to use on the other disc. With Crispell alternating between a cushion of cascading glissandi and a series of strummed kinetic lines, the others are free to experiment. This doesn’t mean that the pianist doesn’t offer up measures of descriptive delicacy or that Léandre doesn’t occasionally step into the rhythmic breech with pressurized shuffle bowing. Still the scene is set for unfettered soloing which includes triplet-laden expansions from Campbell; angled yet avuncular string strokes from Maneri; and burlesque bel canto vocalizing from Léandre, often accompanied by strums and vibrations from all parts of the bass as well as Campbell’s flute asides. Following an interlude when Crispell asserts herself in a two-handed fantasia, before downshifting back to processional runs, the climax is reached with the melding of taut spiccato viola lines; snapping trumpet rasps and speedy glissandi from both the pianist and bassist.

Calling on the individual talents of two sets of trios, Léandre proves that satisfying improvisations can be created without pre-conceptions, but with ideal considerations of each member’s skills.