Jazz Word

Fully back from its period of exile as a relic of the Dixieland-Swing era, the clarinet is now consistently accepted in improvised music as an equal to the saxophone. Yet even in the most advanced surroundings differing opinions as to how best utilize the single reed exist. This fissure can be especially broad when the clarinet is nakedly utilized as a solo instrument, as these CDs demonstrate.

Even in these rarified surroundings, Zürich-based Markus Eichenberger demonstrates that the clarinet’s timbres still connect, however tenuously, to the song form during his set of inter-related intermezzos. On the other hand, French experimenter Xavier Charles from Brabant sur Meuse, is as adamant in his limitation of the clarinet’s definition as a sound source rather than a melody-pusher. Using a collection of all-embracing glissandi, broken and fractured resonances and episodes of concentrated circular breathing, the improvisatory qualities of the A clarinet supersede its regular sonic qualities.

This position is customary for Charles, most usually found in the company of other uncompromising sound explorers including trumpeter Axel Dörner and saxophonist John Butcher or percussionist Ingar Zach and guitarist Ivar Grydeland. A teacher of improvisation and composer as well as a soloist, Eichenberger’s playing experience encompasses situations with improvisers such as saxophonist Dirk Marwedel, violist Charlotte Hug and tubaist Carl-Ludwig Hübsch.

Concisely Halbzeit’s nine half-time variants are paced and unstressed showpieces, which aren’t afraid to expose links to contemporary or earlier notated music, plus Pop and Jazz standards. If the locus of his improvising has to be situated, it, with an atonal overlay, is still part of the Tony Scott-Buddy DeFranco continuum which adopted the clarinet to Modern Jazz. That means among pitch-sliding sequences, underlying tongue extensions, plus staccato and abrasive poramento lines, there’s still space for languid and bel canto tessitura when he creates. Secondly, his playing is so animated that Halbzeit isn’t adverse to make his tradition-extending links apparent. At one instant his reed honking accelerates into a chorus of Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts”; at another juncture he uses key percussion and tongue slaps to mark the transition into a variant of “Willow Weep for Me”.

Not that Halbzeit is an exercise in “name that tune”. Nevertheless Eichenberger’s reed dexterity is such that he can almost effortlessly alternate formalist hovering trills with forceful tone vibrations. He’s also capable of sounding parallel harmonies which at one point refer to roomy contralto variations and can just as quickly turn to flat-line oscillated air or bubbling snorts and growls. Throughout he has no problem showcasing simple lyricism. Yet as point of comparison, one track finds him involved with swift nostril breaths and extended lip trilling, while “Part Five” is based around fortissimo tongue flutters, quivering air stops and throat singing harmonized with equivalent reed timbres.

That final extension is merely one of the extended reed techniques Charles takes as his raison d’etre. He also eschews any hint of the lyrical to concentrate on layered multiphonics, glottal punctuation, bitten-off reed spills and barely there in-and-out respiration. Along the way his reed and body tube catalog includes solipsistic mouthpiece bites, suction air leaks, bathtub-draining textures and prolonged low-pitched sighs. At one climatic point strained circular breathing reaches a crescendo of rubberized squeaks and split tones only to pause for a few measures and then swell into exaggerated, multiphonics.

Invisible’s almost three-dimensional tour-de-force is the more-than-23-minute “Jaune”. By the penultimate variant Charles is expelling so many timbres in such profusion that he appears to be replicating a soundtrack to a couple’s post-coital cries and murmurs. Initially the exposition consists of dry-ice like glissandi and spittle-incrusted abrasions forced through the body tube with intense pressure. Taking time to sequentially expose reverberating tongue slaps, flattement and deep-throat vibrato, his conclusion fluctuates between stylized burrowed growls and startlingly cut off final glissandi.

Looking for full-time sonic essays in the infinite boundaries of the modern clarinet? Look no further than Halbzeit and Invisible.