by Ian Mann
March 10, 2021
Richly nuanced music with a distinctive approach to rhythm and melody. It is a sound that should be capable of appealing to a wide fan base,
Arthur Hnatek Trio
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4770)
Arthur Hnatek – drums, Fabien Iannone – upright bass, Francesco Geminiani – tenor saxophone
Released in January 2021 this offering from Whirlwind Recordings features a trio led by the Swiss drummer and composer Arthur Hnatek.
Now based in Zurich Hnatek studied jazz at the New School for Jazz in New York City and in his capacity as a jazz drummer he has performed as a sideman with a host of illustrious international musicians, among them pianists Shai Maestro, Tigran Hamasyan and Florian Favre, trumpeter Erik Truffaz, guitarists Franky Rousseau and Gilad Hekselman, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Linda May Han Oh, harmonica player Gregoire Maret and many more.
As a composer he has written two extended works for medium sized jazz ensembles, “The Arc Suite” (2013) and “DKSJ 2016”, the latter commissioned by the Swiss Hochschule for Jazz and performed by the DKSJ All Star Band with Hnatek on drums. Hnatek has also composed a number of full length film soundtracks.
In addition to his work as a jazz musician and composer Hnatek is also a producer who has immersed himself in the world of electronic music and club culture. His solo project SWIMS explores the sonic possibilities of drums and electronics in a club friendly setting.
With “Static”, his first recording with his regular trio featuring bassist Fabien Iannone and saxophonist Francesco Geminiani, the drummer seeks to bridge the boundaries between the worlds of jazz and electronica.
At first sight the instrumental line up might suggest something along the lines of the classic jazz saxophone trio as pioneered by Sonny Rollins, but the reality is very different as Hnatek and his colleagues bring a far more contemporary approach to the familiar format.
Hnatek’s absorption of the motorik tradition of Can drummer Jaki Liebzeit, allied to his work as a producer of electronic music have alerted him to the possibilities of rhythmic repetition. This might suggest a minimalist approach in the manner of Steve Reich or Philip Glass but Hnatek’s music is more vigorous and more obviously rooted in the milieu of electronic music and dance culture. Tellingly the only ‘outside’ composition on the album is by Tom Jenkinson, the electronic music artist also known as Squarepusher, a figure who has exerted a considerable influence on many of the current generation of young jazz musicians.
In addition to the Squarepusher composition “MIDI Sans Frontieres” the “Static” album includes five original pieces by Hnatek plus two from the pen of Geminiani. The written material is also interspersed with snippets of spontaneous improvisation documented by the trio during the course of the recording sessions. The closing track, simply titled “The End”, represents a direct example of this process.
“I like the idea that you can have very complicated rhythms, but played in a repetitive way that sounds natural, and where the binaries of ‘written’ and improvised’ aren’t made too clear”, explains Hnatek with reference to his process.
The album commences with the Hnatek composition “Monotonous”, the unpromising title concealing a music that is anything but, and which is fascinating in its execution. In many respects the Hnatek trio could be said to be mining the same seam as the Manchester based ‘piano trio’ GoGo Penguin, i.e. the playing of essentially electronic music on acoustic instruments. Nevertheless both bands still include judicious elements of electronically produced sounds. Examples include the distortion of Nick Blacka’s double bass in GoGo Penguin or the treated timbres of Geminiani’s sax in the Hnatek Trio.
This opening piece features an intermittent electronic soundwash as the leader’s ever evolving drum patterns drive the track, while Geminiani’s sax, drenched in reverb, honks and wails, echoing into the cosmos. It all sounds a little like Van Der Graaf Generator in improvisatory ‘Vanblow’ mode. As Geminiani then begins to stretch out something resembling a conventional jazz solo begins to emerge, although the taut and muscular rhythms generated by Hnatek and Iannone continue to mine other, far more contemporary, musical sources.
Also by the leader “27” features a complex rhythmic lattice created by Iannone and Hnatek as Geminiani’s sax floats gently above. Again the saxophonist treats his sound as Hanatek explains;
“He’s a great jazz player, but also a great software programmer and coder. He manipulates the electronics in real time, a rare combination”. Rhythmically the piece continues to explore some pretty complex and sophisticated ideas, Hnatek may deploy repetition as a compositional device but his pieces are consistently evolving and never settle into a fixed pattern for long, thereby helping to maintain the listener’s interest.
Geminiani takes over the compositional duties for the urgent, skittering “Brew”, which actually places Hnatek’s drums to the fore and which represents an even more obvious homage to the world of electronic music. Juxtaposed against the fidgety rhythms the composer’s floaty sax initially introduces a contrasting serenity, but the mood darkens as the piece progresses with the introduction of the sounds of bowed bass and wispy electronica. The way in which the simplicity of Geminani’s often ingenuous sax melodies contrast with the complexities of the underlying bass and drum rhythms sometimes remind me of Jack Wyllie’s role within Portico Quartet.
“Midi Sans Frontiers” is a lament written by Squarepusher as a musical protest against Brexit. In the hands of the Hnatek trio it becomes a haunting jazz ballad, with Iannone’s bass initially carrying Jenkinson’s memorable melody. Ambient electronics allied to Geminani’s wispy sax adds an air of wistfulness as Hnatek initially casts the rhythmic complexities of the earlier tracks aside to concentrate on the role of colourist. Later he taps out a more insistent and powerful rhythm, as the feeling of nostalgia seems to give way to actual protest.
Incidentally, Hnatak’s compatriots, the Geneva based ‘piano trio’ Plaistow took their name from a Squarepusher track and they also epitomise the concept of playing ‘techno’ music on acoustic instruments. One suspects that they must have crossed paths with the Hnatek Trio somewhere along the way.
Hnatek’s “Nine B” features the three members of the group in a dizzyingly complex series of rhythmic and melodic exchanges with Geminiani’s sax pirouetting lithely around the dancing rhythms laid down by Hnatek and Iannone. The leader displays an astonishing technical facility throughout the recording, drawing similarly skilled responses from his two colleagues. The subtle use of electronics also characterises this track as the trio expand upon their rhythmic and melodic ideas, still continuing to evolve consistently.
“In Three” is dominated by Hnatek’s drums as the leader conjures a broad variety of sounds and rhythms from his kit, his explorations underpinned by Iannone’s grounding bass. Geminiani’s sax swirls in and out, sometimes locking in with the drums to deliver dizzyingly complex King Crimson style unison passages. Not a gentle jazz waltz as the title might suggest, but instead a powerful rhythmic tour de force.
“Static” itself takes a simple two bar melody and uses it as the basis for the trio’s studio improvising, the track essentially being captured ‘on the fly’. Again the title is something of a misnomer as the piece is evolving constantly, albeit in unhurried and highly atmospheric fashion.
Geminiani’s second composition is “Cinque”, of which Hnatek remarks;
“I love the way that he could write such a beautiful melody over such complex drum patterns! This one was fun to play”.
There is an engagingly playful quality about the performance and Hnatek’s comments characterise the piece perfectly.
The album concludes with “The End”, a short improvised snippet featuring ambient electronica allied to a spontaneously created rhythmic pattern. One suspects that this forty seven second fragment represents part of a much longer studio performance.
Listeners expecting a conventional saxophone trio record may be disappointed and initially I found myself a little disorientated by Hnatak’s distinctive approach to rhythm and melody. However as I increasingly immersed myself in the music I gradually found myself getting more and more out of it. This is richly nuanced music and the trio deliver a remarkably wide array of sounds and ideas out of the basic structure of drums, bass and sax, admittedly with a well measured serving of electronica stirred in. Previous exposure to some of the other acts mentioned above – notably Portico Quartet, GoGo Penguin and Plaistow, plus Mammal Hands – definitely aided my understanding and enjoyment of the Hnatek Trio’s music. It is a sound that should be capable of appealing to a wide fan base, much as the likes of Portico and GoGo Penguin have done.
“Static” was recorded with the support of the Pro Helvetia Foundation for Swiss Culture. Given the close links between that organisation and Serious, the promoters of the EFG London Jazz Festival, one would like to think that the Hnatek Trio are a band that might become involved in the 2021 EFG LJF, in whatever form it might take. On the evidence of this exciting and dynamic recording the Arthur Hnatek Trio is a group that I’d very much like to see performing live.
blog comments powered by Disqus