Conundrum cs779









Part of the 2022 trio tour of violinist Ernesto Rodrigues, cellist Guilherme Rodrigues and saxophonist Nuno Torres is this studio recording in Berlin with free jazz legendary pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and drummer/percussionist Willi Kellers, each of the 9 improvisations named for mythical beasts, appropriate to the fearsome force of these five masterful players. (Squidco)

Reconstituting their usual string-centric improvisations to encompass more vigorous instruments Portuguese violist Ernesto Rodrigues and his son, cellist Guilherme Rodrigues improvise throughout this disc alongside Portuguese reed player Gonçalo Mortágua and legendary German percussionist Gunter "Baby" Sommer. While Mortágua, who usually plays in an Afro-soul band, creates thin flute peeps and tenor sax split tones, and minimalist swipes are familiar from Rodrigues' literally hundreds of lower case sessions. Sommer, now 80, projects the power and playfulness he has excelled in since the early 1970s.
But the percussionist never dominates. His only extended solo is on the penultimate "Untitled", where his vocal whoops introduce a compendium of ruffs, ratamacues and cymbal smashes that abut string shrieks and altissimo reed squawks. That doesn't mean Sommer isn't busy augmenting textures on the other tracks though. If he isn't rubbing drum tops or smacking wooden blocks, he's adding paradiddles and rebounds, bell pealing or twanging a Jew's harp. That last interjection is heard on "Invocacao", where it breaks up a dense exposition with strings stretched and staccato rubbing across fingerboards and flute trills leading to layered evolution. The cellist later adds double bass-like pulses and Mortágua, on tenor, harsh split tones. This transformation from micro to macro ends with a single cymbal ping.
Strategies like that brighten most interactions. Extended techniques from the strings include stretching timbres to encompass spiccato squeaks, steadily thinning slices and forceful scrubs. At points they divide with Ernesto's playing approaching melodicism while Guilherme slaps rhythmically. With a full husky tone, the saxophonist honks, tongue stops and uses finger vibrations. Or he climaxes an introduction of lacerating string slices on "Seide, Samt Und Kashmir" with expanding spetrofluctuation and cuckoo-clock like echoes until drum shuffles neutralize the narrative.
Obviously mis-titled, the improvisations and excitement engendered on this disc are more than Not Bad. Instead the description should be Very Good or perhaps Excellent. Ken Waxman (The Squid’s Ear)

Turning to an album released earlier in the year, recorded (in Berlin) only last November (so still less than a year ago...), Conundrum presents a sophisticated quintet interaction between Ernesto Rodrigues (here on violin), Guilherme Rodrigues, Ernesto's longtime colleague Nuno Torres (on alto sax), and German masters Alexander von Schlippenbach & Willi Kellers. I didn't review the album when it appeared, in large part due to the fame of von Schlippenbach — & because of course I already write so often about Rodrigues. Besides that I'm always turning away from piano here then, particularly beyond equal temperament (& indeed a relatively traditional piano sound is involved...), I simply didn't believe that these well-established musicians "needed" my attention. But then I started to fret that Conundrum wasn't getting enough attention elsewhere, because I do find it to be a rather compelling synthesis... with substantially polyphonic interactions & various active allusions. So as I'd also alluded in the review of Hunt at the Brook Again from September, my own aesthetic narrative takes me back to various (productive) familiarities, styles & combos that I particularly enjoy (& in which I've invested time...), even as I might be telling myself that I want to diversify more.... And there's an authenticity to discussing what one enjoys, so it's not something I want to dismiss in any way, but there's also a drive toward exploration that familiarities can blunt.... In any case, not that I have the (supernatural) ability to speak for anyone else anyway, but I'm still no expert on Schlippenbach's extensive & impressive career as an improvising pianist. Nor was I an expert on Günter "Baby" Sommer when I had the opportunity to write the liner notes for the release of the Rodrigueses' quartet album with Sommer, Not Bad (recorded in June 2022 & released in January 2023), but I could talk there a bit about differing generations & continuing to build new worlds.... I also didn't do justice to horn player Gonçalo Mortágua for that discussion, who I came to realize was basically making his debut — in an album featuring the Rodrigues approach to extended string timbres & spectral harmonies, while evoking e.g. a "world vibe" (which can be said of jazz in general, I suppose...). It also involved a relatively linear presentation of musical ideas... unlike Conundrum, which tackles more in the way of vertical dimensions & modes of harmonic motion. (There're some real jazz evocations from members of the quintet briefly too, but also quite a bit of prickly polyphonic intensity amid shifting timbres.) Conundrum certainly doesn't involve anyone's debut either, as these are all very experienced improvising musicians. And while I don't have much experience myself e.g. with Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra, or really as much focus on Ernesto's larger ensembles either, the two obviously come with extensive experience in forging larger groups, surely part of what makes this quintet session almost immediately flow.... (Despite my disclaimers, I've actually mentioned Schlippenbach a few times here: He'd appeared with Red Dhal Sextet, as reviewed in February 2014, as well as was noted with the quintet Intricacies — along with Kellers — from May 2015.... And Kellers himself first appeared here with the Grid Mesh quartet, as reviewed in November 2013.) And then let me highlight Torres (b.1977) a little more: Appearing on a variety of Rodrigues releases, going back here e.g. to New Dynamics (recorded in 2016) or Setúbal (reviewed in May 2020), Torres is able to play low in textures (e.g. spectrally, i.e. with a sense of geometric acoustics), but also can conjure more soloistic jazzy expression when needed. (The harmonics relation is also a little different here, because Ernesto is on violin, i.e. often higher in the texture.) Conundrum then appears to be the first recording of a little tour that Torres did with the two Rodrigueses (who were maybe also taking up the "legends" theme from Not Bad...) last November, with Conspiratorial and fulminate things happen (reviewed this May) & Brecht (mentioned in a January review) already appearing here, but there's also e.g. the more distended Letters to Milena.... And finally the title, Conundrum (with tracks named e.g. for mythical monsters...), does seem (perhaps) to refer to the challenges of combining tempered keyboard with contemporary spectral-timbral string concerns: Some old-fashioned (or "classic...") qualities reappear, but the result is surprisingly taut yet fluid as well, generally with much assertive momentum. It almost seems as though they've been playing together for a long time (as the saying goes...). Todd McComb's Jazz Thoughts


Avançant inexorablement vers un grand âge, Alex von Schippenbach a sensiblement réduit ses cadences infernales, épuré son discours souvent torrentiel pour se consacrer à l’essentiel du jeu concerté au piano en se mettant au centre du dispositif instrumental (alto, violoncelle, sax alto, batterie et piano), devenant l’élément rotatif , le régulateur multidimensionnel des échanges interactifs au sein de cet orchestre pas comme les autres. Il faut souligner la pertinence des frappes, accents et pulsations actionnées par Willy Kellers du bout des baguettes rebondissantes, ses cymbales mouvantes ou cristallines et la précision colorée des rim-shots. Soit des frappes sur les bords des tambours, vagues légères de roulements inégaux sur les peaux, le tout réalisé avec discrétion et retenue pour ne pas couvrir ses collègues au piano et aux cordes frottées. Nuno Torres donne ici toute sa mesure sinueuse, articulant avec une belle agilité des timbres rares et des détachés à la fois feutrés et mordants, avec un jeu à la fois rude, souple et doux. Une belle finesse camouflée avec goût dans cette folle végétation iridescente de timbres, de secousses et tourbillons. Guilherme Rodrigues a un don inné pour introduire à l’instant rêvé des figures bienvenues, un riff momentané par-ci, un dérapage par-là, une fugue élégiaque, des dissonances accentuées , des pizzicatos puissants et déréglés et quelques ébouriffantes embardées avec son père, toujours à l’affut du bon coup à faire ajoutant ainsi un surcroit de crédibilité à ces neuf passionnantes improvisations collectives, certaines se résumant à de brèves bagatelles de trois minutes. Ernesto Rodrigues nous livre ici sa performance la plus endiablée et viscérale, striant les cordes et la tessiture de son instrument avec un archet endiablé, extrayant des suraigus extrêmes, produits d’harmoniques arrachées en un éclair à l’extrémité d’un agrégat de notes scratchées (NB : il s’agit de toucher une corde avec un doigt sans l’enfoncer sur la touche en frottant l’archet avec une grande précision juste avant de relâcher le doigt immédiatement – technique accessible pour tout un chacun mais très compliquée à maîtriser avec cette vitesse d’exécution et les infinies variations de l’intensité frénétique de son jeu ).
De fines correspondances dans les interactions croisées entre chacun des musiciens apparaissent et disparaissent polarisant des fragments de dialogues en orbite autour du champ auditif avec de multiples alternances dans plusieurs directions. Cette ultra- mobilité collective d’une étonnante lisibilité génère une force centrifuge et celle-ci transcende les équilibres entre les instruments doux et fragiles (l’alto d’Ernesto, le jeu poids plume de Nuno) et ceux dont le volume sonore potentiel pourraient couvrir les autres (le piano et la batterie). Alex ne s’impose pas comme soliste prépondérant propulsé par la batterie et le violoncelle, mais concentre plutôt son jeu dans une dimension éminemment collective faisant évoluer ses enchainements d’accords, de clusters et d’échappées atonales avec une fluidité qui épouse les changements constants au sein de cette constellation mouvante de formes fugaces et peu prévisibles. Bref , c’est une session étonnante et étonnamment cohérente et lisible déclinant de multiples aspects formels, options, trames et cheminements de la musique libre, instantanée et collective. Sans nul doute l’enregistrement le plus inhabituel et singulier d’Alex von Schlippenbach et d’Ernesto Rodrigues dans leurs discographies respectives, chacun des cinq musiciens apportant une contribution équivalente au niveau qualité de manière égalitaire. Chacun est ici à son avantage. La prise de son limpide distingue les moindres détails de la musique jouée avec une soufflante lisibilité. Exemplaire! Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg (Orynx)