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See Saw

Artist: Queen Mab Trio
Queen Mab Trio - See Saw CD
Label: Wig
Regular Price: $16.95
On Sale For: $6.78 
Year: 2004
Format: CD

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Listen
Listen NowLori F.
 The idea that improvising musicians are having a musical "conversation" is a useful one. But with the exception of one track (the last) the controlling concept on this disc feels much less like a conversation than the action plan one puts into play after a very fruitful discussion. This wonderful trio performs not so much as three separate voices calling and responding, proposing and modifying, agreeing and/or disagreeing, but as three simpatico vines growing around the same young sapling. The result is quite beautiful, indeed.

The outcome is even more fascinating when you consider that only two of these musicians normally play together. Though the eight-year-old Canadian duo Queen Mab - Marilyn Lerner, piano; Lori Freedman, clarinets - has collaborated with other musicians before - notably on its second CD Close - this is the first time the group has released a whole disc featuring a third, equal partner - Dutch composer and violist Ig Henneman. It’s a natural enough move. Dutch improvisers have found an ample and eager audience in Canada over the years - and vice versa - and Freedman herself has spent a lot of time in Amsterdam. During one of those sojourns, Freedman played with Henneman’s tentet

After the violist heard Close, she suggested a trio collaboration. See Saw is excerpted from the result - a 2002 tour across Canada, from Victoria to Halifax.

Though Queen Mab stands alone quite nicely, Henneman enlivens and enriches the duo a great deal. With a composer’s instinct for structure, she pushes musical segments to coherent definitions, yet never lingers in one place long. Interestingly, though she’s a player with mostly modern classical associations, she also offers two strategies linked to jazz - aggressive pulses for others to improvise over, and a sense of playfulness.

The result is an inviting, graceful chamber set that is both muscular and seductive, ranging in mood from martial and industrial to pastoral and elegiac. The three players squeeze a remarkable variety of blends from their instruments. At times, viola and Bb clarinet sound strident as a trumpet; at others, the mellow lows of the bass clarinet coo and hoot with the sister sounds of the low viola strings. At still other moments, the strings of the piano find sympathy with those of the viola.

Those with an eye for detail will note immediately that six of the nine performances have been drawn from the Halifax gig, a date that prompted both sadness and intense concentration, because it was the last of the tour.

See Saw arose during that November 16 encounter. I love how the solemnity and sobriety of the opening theme - with beautiful sonorities between bass clarinet and viola - belies the playfulness of the improv, and how the trio caps the piece with a swift exclamation point.

"Shift" begins inside the box - the piano box, that is - with the library-quiet ceremony and silences of Gagaku music - plinks, sproings and pings included. The title refers to shifting roles in the score - composed of words only, no notes - but the real "shift" is from the veiled, shadow world inside the piano to the arena of concrete forms outside it.

The "stubborn, passionate" music of St. Petersburg-based composer Galina Ustvolskaya, "without any ornamentation," says Henneman, is among her contemporary favorites, hence the aggressive trumpeting and factory-like dissonance of "Galina U"’s opening. Lerner makes a wonderful rumble here and Freedman counters with some Dolphy-esque warbling. After the piano suddenly goes tender, the scariness returns.

Flow and blend are nice, but sometimes contrast is even more fun. As Henneman’s viola approaches violence on "June 2th," Lerner and Freedman meditate in a quiet room of their own, then all join for an animated close.

The open voicing of "Chorale" lives up to its title, viola and Bb clarinet blending for a fluty sound, and Lerner making the only obvious references to her jazz roots - peaceful pools of piano that recall Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. Lovely.

Freedman’s virtuosity on the big horn takes flight with a fluttering trill on her namesake tune, "Lori F," as Henneman offers an aggressively-patterned carpet for her to ride, then delivers a dancing solo herself.

"Three Strikes," the longest piece on the program, begins tentatively, with dampened piano notes and abstract chirps and groans, then showcases the solo virtuosity of each player. The bass clarinet kicks into a high gear as Freedman "answers" herself with a low melody figure, then Henneman digs in below with a vigorous double-stop vamp that eventually becomes a sort of drone, like Thai bamboo harmonica. Henneman and Lerner follow with animated, virtuosic outings.

The crepuscular night march of "Marilyn L" features piano again, but also a lovely, skipping interlude in which each player staggers her attack on the same figure, just off the beat. This piece also features an orchestral dimension one wouldn’t have thought possible from these three instruments.

On the aptly-titled "Exchange," a wild clarinet solo with subtle klezmer references is answered by viola and piano, who seem to say, in a soothing refrain, "everything will be okay."

As mentioned above, the conversational interplay of "Exchange" - as well as the virtuoso showcasing of "Three Strikes" - are the exception rather than the rule on this disc. Group cooperation and ensemble focus take center stage instead. Without wishing to beat a dead horse, it’s worth pointing out the feminist subtext here - hey, the group is named after Queen Mab, who ain't just a fairy queen in a Shakespeare play, she's an ancient Celtic power goddess. Most free improv is dominated by men, and the bane of the scene, unfortunately, is the macho display of idiosyncratic technique and competitive exchange. What’s lovely about this cooperative, ensemble-focused disc is that while it doesn’t indulge in all that, it still has many of the positive qualities stereotypically associated with men: aggression, structural rigor, and a strenuous lack of sentimentality.

That makes for a very beautiful and intelligent album, indeed.

– Paul de Barros
ARTISTS
Marilyn Lerner (piano); Lori Freedman (bass clarinet, clarinet); Ig Henneman (viola)
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