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Alexander von Schlippenbach

Friulian Sketches


by Tim Owen

January 22, 2009


Sketches from the interface of jazz and modern chamber music. Powerful, dynamic and richly rewarding

Alexander von Schlippenbach, piano; Daniel D’Agaro, clarinet; Tristan Honsinger, cello

You can probably look at the instrumentation and personnel on this disc and know approximately what to expect. Alexander von Schlippenbach will be well known to many listeners as the leader of the Schlippenbach Trio that also features Paul Lovens and Evan Parker. He’s also the founder of the Globe Unity Orchestra, and has famously recorded interpretations of all of Thelonious Monk’s original compositions. 

Tristan Honsinger is a Canadian expat, resident in Amsterdam, who is best known for his various associations with Cecil Taylor. He has lived in Holland since the 70s and has apparently played with Han Benink: from what I remember of his playing style the pair would be well matched. In performance, Honsinger relaxes into a theatrical, borderline slapstick style. He’s fond of coaxing an astonishingly broad range of sound effects from his cello, sometimes dragging or jabbing its spike into the floor. He’s more restrained for these pieces. Also from memory, he collaborated very successfully with Dutch post-punk ensemble The Ex in the 90s, both in concert and on record.

Daniel D’Agaro is new to me, so for details I turn to the useful European Jazz Network website, and find that D’Agaro is also a resident of Amsterdam. Unsurprisingly, he also has played with Benink, at one time to perform the unpublished music of Don Byas, and with other European neighbours such as the Italian pianist Franco D’Andrea, and in an occasional duo with Schlippenbach himself. Other intriguing ensembles have variously featured Senegalese vocalists, an ethnic Alpine string section, and electronica specialist Richard Teitelbaum. D’Agaro has, at various times, played Jazz spiced with Italian folk music, South African Kwela, and Gregorian chant. It’s no surprise to hear the occasional Semitic inflection in his playing here (as on Rapsodia). 

Of the three musician’s biographies, D’Agaro’s probably best hints at the particular qualities of this album. The instrumentation of piano, clarinet and cello, and the titles of the individual pieces, obviously suggest the modes of modern chamber music, but there is also the influence of European folk traditions. The trio generates the emotional density of the century’s best classical music, but their mutual attentiveness and responsiveness is the essence of jazz, and specifically of European free music. Many listeners who are routinely left cold by that mode may find this variation more rewarding.

The first track sets off in sprightly fashion, with D’Agaro’s clarinet dominant, but this gives way first to a plucked bass feature, and then to a trio coda with the bass now played arco. The track has a narrative quality. The second, in contrast, is a construction of multiple complementary layers: quietly agitated bowed cello, with Honsinger separating the higher and lower registers; sustained clarinet tones; and impressionistic piano.

The next two tracks provide further contrasts. Notturno is extremely subtle and requires close listening. There’s nothing percussive; only Schlippenbach’s piano taking the piece to a soft climax. Fase is contrastingly sprightly, constructed from brief, stabbing and skittering, quickly repeated figures, and pushed to a very fast tempo.

A later track, Romanza, has quietude but not fragility; it ebbs away to silence before a brief rejuvenation. Valzer’s irregular pizzicato bass intro establishes an uneasy tension that permeates the rest of the piece. Allegro follows, fast and staccato. It’s hard to hear exactly how the three instrumental lines cohere, but they do. Rapsodia has a bright and yes, rhapsodic clarinet solo, but the cello is astringent, and touches of piano add an almost menacing undercurrent. The following track, Versetto, is understandably agitated.

There are twenty pieces in all, each one richly resonant, demanding and repaying close listening. They are indeed sketches, in the sense that they are outlined quickly, in bold strokes, and then intricately elaborated, but leave room for the listener’s own imaginings and interpretations. It’s an album best dipped into, as a codex, than taken whole. 

If you don’t know already, Friuli is a region of Italy; it was home to the writer, poet and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini romanticised pre-industrial Italian culture and occasionally wrote in Friulian, in opposition to the neglect of the dialect. There is something of the same spirit about this work, which looks beyond Jazz to the language of other, more marginal traditions. As with much modern chamber music its tones are astringent, and the overall effect somewhat ascetic, but it is also powerful, dynamic and richly rewarding.

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