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Frank Gratkowski Trio:
Frank Gratkowski: Alto Sax, Bass Clarinet
Dieter Manderscheid: Bass
Gerry Hemingway: Percussion
I was very pleasantly surprised to hear this CD. I had seen Gratkowski live back in 1997. He was playing in, I believe, a duo with Fred Van Hove in Chicago. For some reason the set seemed an absolute bore, and so I wrote off Gratkowski that night as being more than an also-ran.
Turns out that Gratkowski must have been honing his craft since then--theres no way I could have overlooked that night the kind of exciting originality Gratkowski displays here. Hemingway and Manderscheid undoubtedly aid the quality, but Gratkowski has clearly earned his own eponymous trio.
As an alto player, Gratkowski currently uses two main modes of play. The first owes much to the attack of the bowed strings, and the spiky pointillism of Serial compositions. Add the rhythm section, and--if I might venture a visual analogy--the effect is like watching a slowly revolving crystalline mobile, hanging above a hoard of frogs snapping at flies. A nice bit of contrast and balance. Marcus Mullers liner notes make much of a Braxton comparison, and I can see how one might be reminded of Braxton when Gratkowski is in this mode. But Braxtons work has a more manic, forceful quality about it. Gratkowski, in mode one, might be better likened to a volume-pedal-pumping Derek Bailey.
Mode Two is just a hoot. Someday someone should do an acoustical study of how it is that different alto players still manage to find their own noises to make on the horn. Gratkowski in mode two reveals an ear for the absurd, the comic, without (importantly) a feel of smugness. He means it, and he brings an original voice to it.
As if that werent enough, Gratkowski is a quite accomplished bass clarinet player. Too many free players want to make the bass clarinet into something it isnt--David Murray, for example, seems to merely transfer his tenor sax moves to it. At his best, Gratkowski promises to set a new standard on the instrument. Sure, it still has some of the familiar lugubriousness in places, making one wonder whether it was the best overall choice for a lead horn. But when FG sets his creativity to it, he again reveals his enviable ability to find new sounds and new chops that are guaranteed to surprise.
Hemingway and Mandersheid are nicely paired as a rhythm section. Hemingways talents are undoubtedly familiar to most experienced listeners--here he employs his engaging kitchen sink slow burn to up the tension-release capabilities of the trio. He only seems out of place when he goes bombastic. Gratkowski is not exactly shooting for the Ayleresque, and Hemingway tries to push him there a couple of times. Manderscheid, though less well known, is well positioned, since his playing is scarcely less pointillistic than Hemingways. Particularly nice is how he varies both timbre and attack. The sudden pops and click spring out of the mix and shift the focus of attention, and tension, at just the right times.
I suppose none of us should be judged by a single night live. I just hope that when I get to see Frank again, it will be with this trio!
- Wyman Brantley