RT 9336 (2008)




Frank Gratkowski, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax
Chris Brown, piano and live electronics
William Winant, vibraphone and percussion

1) Slide   25:00
2) Ambitus   11:50
3) Scrabble   10:35
4) Parallax   10:59
5) Archipelago   14:38

Recorded live at Mills College, Oakland, California, USA on March 23, 2007

All compositions by Gratkowski (GEMA), Brown (BMI), Winant 



Touching Extremes - Massimo Ricci

Unjustly, Canadian imprint Red Toucan does not receive excessive accolades, most probably due to a low rate of recurrence in their releases, the large part positioned well over the average standards of artistic reliability. It only takes a peep at the label’s catalogue to realize that many stalwarts of modern-day improvisation – Marilyn Crispell to John Butcher, Joëlle Léandre to Vinny Golia – have been recording for Michel Passaretti’s ever-consistent label.

Looking at the participants in Wake is enough to comprehend that this is one of those albums in which there’s no need of sticking tags on something that – borrowing the name of Alfred Harth’s earliest ensemble – is definable as “just music”, executed with commendable balance of fervour and wisdom in unconditional technical superiority. The careers of Gratkowski (clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax), Winant (vibraphone, percussion) and Brown (piano, live electronics) feature a sort of Gotha in regard to collaborations and commissions, all three having performed works by worldwide known composers and played with the very best in the areas of free music, jazz and contemporary classical. Without throwing hundreds of names, a quick check of the artists’ respective websites tells everything: we’re in presence of jack of all trades and masters of each one of them.

The five tracks of this CD – a rare occasion in which a duration of circa 73 minutes is not perceived as a yoke – enclose a whole host of complicated techniques and instant answers which, if utilized by lesser instrumentalists, would almost resemble a gallery of technically advanced trickery. In “Scrabble”, for example, the trio exploits the toneless sides of their apparatuses marvellously, gradually transforming a jungle of wet pops, lingual abstruseness, light hits and general inharmonic insidiousness into a phraseology bursting with astute superimpositions of concise fragments and diligent anti-embellishments, resembling a downgraded orchestra losing its pieces bit by bit in sublime decadence as the time elapses. In the subsequent piece, the gorgeous “Parallax”, the tension generated by the reticent call-and-response between Winant’s quivering vibes and metals, Gratkowski’s precisely sensitive undertones and Brown’s slightly misshapen perturbations is substantial, the musicians not laying to rest on a defined tonal centre in favour of an irresistible predisposition to well-dressed discomposure.

What separates the contenders from the pretenders is the sense of “on-the-spot composition” that underscores the entire disc. The threesome utilize a “full-acuity” approach, intuitions placed right in the heart of a continuously blossoming interaction where divergent moods, lyrical hesitations and conscious probing symbolize a fusion of purposes which, in the end, sounds like a studied ceremony. The electronic factor is often crucial in gathering the timbres under an umbrella of tactful morphing, the character of the instruments altered exactly as necessary; an ideal measure of pragmatism, which prevents the playing from taking the “gone astray” road to improvisational blankness. The ears get appreciative both for the single voices and the deriving composite textures, a spectacular tidiness constantly visible down to the minute particulars of blowouts that might appear as specialist gibberish at first yet, contrariwise, correspond to rites of passage towards an acoustically balanced, literally enlightened even-handedness.

A thoroughly recommended set worthy of scrupulous investigations: additional qualities will be materializing with every new spin.

Massimo Ricci - Touching Extremes


Intuitive Music Cd Reviews - Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen

Improvisors work hard with responding to the needs of the moment, and a common danger is that this reacting in differentiated way for some reason ends up with an organic complexity in which improvisations resemble each other despite certain individualities, like trees in the wood. Can we also create overall structures encompassing really different landscapes - I mean, still as improvisors, without resorting to fixed arrangements?

That would be an important virtue to strive for, and this trio seems to possess it. Sounds develop into relatively sustained structures that move and change for a long time while remaining themselves - the last 4 pieces do, in fact, appear exactly as "pieces" in this way. First track is a long one. It develops from pointillistic to conversating to something spun by longer "threads" - first aetherically light, then with interweaving moves of voices - to a rejoicing in high interferences eventually becoming clusters with fast interweawing movements finally becoming a sort of freejazz gymnastics. This last, rather predictable kind of sound is the only exception of its kind to all the other things happening.
Last but not least one more virtue must be mentioned: that of creating interesting and vivid interactions between live-electronics and instruments, a juxtaposition which so often produces debatable results. This record is an argument against those who think improvisation always sound the same.

Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen
Intuitive Music Cd Reviews

Jazz Review - Glenn Astarita

You can generally count on quality product from three eminent improvisers aligning their laudable wares.  Recorded at Mills College in Oakland, CA., the trio executes a superb study in polytonal expressionism via densely populated tone poems, colorific textures and microtonal dialogues.  But there’s much more involved here.

Multi-woodwind ace Frank Gratkowski renders an aggregation of off-kilter phrasings atop pianist Chris Brown’s live electronics treatments and drummer/percussionist Willie Winant’s kaleidoscopic attack.  With verbose dialogues and fleeting waves of sound across divergent storylines, the trio generates a confederation of highly emotive aspects.

The band offers happenstance and at times, whimsical exchanges where each piece stands on its own.  And it’s not bogged down with repetitious or superfluous activities.  For example, Winant’s rolling toms work opens the floodgates for the band’s rousing finale on the increasingly turbulent extended piece titled “Slide.”  Then Brown’s EFX type interference noise shaping jaunts provide a middle ground for his band-mates distorted depiction of what a rainforest might seem like, especially when it’s difficult to discern who is doing what.  Of course, that’s part of the beauty, since Winant’s small percussion hits, Brown’s plucking of the piano strings and Gratkowski’s terse woodwind notes generate an existential framework.

The musicians’ sport yet another look on “Parallax,” accentuated by Gratkowski’s droning sax parts and Brown’s stammering chord patterns.  Here, Winant adds a multihued layer via his upper register vibes work.  In addition, Brown’s silvery and streaming electronics induced movements add a bizarre element to the overall schema.  Hence, the artists’ triumphantly pursue a wealth of uncanny musical propositions that should consistently prod or test your inner psyche.

Glenn Astarita
Jazz Review

All About Jazz - Nic Jones

This is a remarkably simpatico trio. The evidence is all over this program in terms of deft musical touches and the deep listening of all three members. Even in the most animated passages the music never descends into mere chaos, and there is an underlying logic which just might lie closer to the heart of musical expression than any creation of chaos for its own sake.

The sonic palette of the instrumentation is exploited to the full. On the opening "Slide" everything is lively, yet measured at one and the same time, with Frank Gratkowski's clarinet and bass clarinet hinting at Viennese Formalism in places, even while he revels in the moment. William Winant's percussive touch is alert to the demands of the moment while Chris Brown's piano merely hints at bombast when it's not mocking the very idea.

The arguably perennial issue of silence is to the fore on the following "Ambitus," where in the opening passage Brown and Gratkowski tease with it by mutual consent as small sounds come up out of nothing like a blunt instrument pushing against fabric. Brown's electronics serve to take the ambiance outside of the known world while his piano, seemingly grounded in it by way of compensation, provides random interjections. Where the music is more lively it's with a collective eye on something greater but tantalizingly distant; Gratkowski's clarinet in certain passages takes on the role of a focal point for all of its entirely singular logic.

If "Scrabble" has any wordy implications than they reference a highly individual vocabulary. The smallest sounds inevitably come out of nothing, although in this case the listener might almost be both intruder and outsider so personal is the music in its evolution. That said, there's nothing forbidding about the proceedings. At all times this is music that holds the attention, even while it makes demands of the listener.

Those demands are always welcome, and on the closing "Archipelago" it sounds as though the trio is fully appreciative of that. Again the music is in thrall to the moment, even while it's outside the measure of time. As such, the very sounds they produce celebrate that passing moment despite they're being a passionate denial of it. If it is the case that music as a means for organizing time is a plausible one, than these three individuals are appreciative of the idea that music is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Nic Jones
All About Jazz

All About Jazz - Jerry D'Souza

Intuition plays a major role in the music that Frank Gratkowski, Chris Brown and William Winant construct. All are freedom riders who conjure unusual patterns.

Rumination is often the take-off point. "Slide" builds an ethereal atmosphere. The notes of the saxophone wisp around as Brown scurries on the piano. The atmosphere takes gradual shape, an eerie air giving way to a pronounced dissonance. The volatility of the sounds that each lets permeate clash and reverberate, come together for a brief union and then distance themselves. But in all of that there is an underlying pattern, a kaleidoscope of sound and color that glues the piece together.

Winant references the melody of "Parallax" on the vibraphone and pulls Gratkowski into the refrain. The mood is built on a neo-classical approach, the transparency of the music shimmering and beautiful. The trio builds on that through shifts of timbre, opening up the nuances and adding a bit of muscularity to make for an alluring journey. Gratkowski gives his instruments a timbre and texture that is divined by the circumstances.

"Scrabble" runs up on the twittering of the saxophone and fluttering percussion, the progression molded by electronics. Sound is filtered, it is squeezed, it is let loose to traipse albeit briefly, but it is never in stasis. Each permutation builds on the other in a logical extension that is splintered yet cohesive.

The trio lets their music take manifold shapes. They can command the mood through a finely honed solo or fragmented construction just as they can lock lines with tensile tautness and ferocious phrases. The sound is their own and gives them a pertinent presence.

Jerry D'Souza
All About Jazz

All About Jazz - Mark Corroto

California meets Germany happens to be the headline of this trio of Frank Gratkowski, William Winant, and Chris Brown. Maybe the story-behind-the-story here is that great minds think alike and great improvisers improvise, well...greatly.

German composer/reed musician Frank Gratkowski has been active on the European scene for the last 20 years. He has an affinity for strong pianist like George Graewe, Misha Mengelberg and Achim Kaufmann, and drummers including Gerry Hemingway and Tony Oxley. It seems natural that he would connect with pianist Chris Brown and percussionist William Winant. Both West Coast artists have been associated with Glenn Spearman and Larry Ochs of ROVA fame.

This live recording is from March 2007 at Mills College in Oakland. It opens with the lengthy, 25 minute "Slide," which starts out tentatively—acoustically very simple. The combination of Gratkowski's bass clarinet and Winant's vibraphone has a pleasing, swaddled sound. Brown also carries a percussive touch that compliments Winant. As tension builds, the introduction of electronics moves away from any sense of security. Odd sounds, repetition, and some welcome fuzz joins the mix. These three musicians never allow the electronics to dominate the affair, and throughout democracy reigns. The remainder of the tracks, all greater than 10 minutes in length, present organic creations of natural sound-making.

The trio permits the music to get a bit sentimental at times, and while the softer side of improvisation is rarely mined these days, it never gets sugary here. They simply have the diligence and humility to pursue some self-restraint and humility in their music.

Mark Corroto
All About Jazz


Over the past decade Frank Gratkowski has played with a number of the better European and American improvisers, with more than a dozen discs as a leader and nearly twice as many as a collaborator. This is the first time that Frank has worked with these formidable players, both of whom teach at Mills College in Oakland, CA. Chris Brown has worked with The Hub (electronic ensemble), as well as with Larry Ochs in Room. William Winant is an amazing percussionist, playing in both the modern classical and improv worlds, working with a diverse cast like Thurston Moore & Sonic Youth, Fred Frith, Alvin Curran and Larry Polansky.

I must admit that this disc is quite extraordinary. I've played nearly every day for the past few weeks at the store and it has that magical quality that is rare amongst improv dates. What works so well is that the inside-the-piano & live electronic sounds with William's varied percussion (rubbed cymbals, vibes drones) and Frank's eerie clarinet playing, all work together in perfect tandem, often using similar textures. The superb recording and meticulous balance also add to the mystery. No matter how delicate or intense the sounds get, the blend is consistent and fascinating. The interaction is especially exciting and often has us at the edge of our seats. This music is often unpredictable and it is nearly impossible to tell who is doing what at certain times, thus adding yet another layer to the mysterious and captivating sounds.