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Frank Gratkowski & Misha Mengelberg - Vis-à-Vis

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Artist: Frank Gratkowski & Misha Mengelberg

Album: Vis-à-Vis

Label: Leo

Review date: Jan. 26, 2007

Dutchman Misha Mengelberg is one of finest comedians in European improvised music. His sense of humor behind the piano is by turns wry and absurdist, akin to that of his compatriot Han Bennink, but less prone to puerile hyperactivity and self-indulgent bombast. He’s also one of the idiom’s consummate technicians, blessed with an idiosyncratic mastery of time and note placement on par with Monk. Predicting the path of a Mengelberg solo is like trying to track the movements of a hummingbird while blindfolded. He commands the entire length of the keyboard and playing in his company can quickly become a feckless exercise in simply trying to keep pace with his mercurial movements. German reedman Frank Gratkowski is quite a bit younger in years, but has amassed an impressive resume of recordings and achievements, touring regularly and upholding a personal policy of playing with practically all comers. He’s also known for his well-exposed funny bone and a facility with timbral effects on his instruments that would make sound-effects master like Walter Murch pine with envy.

Both men are time-tested heavyweights and their complementary sensibilities would seem to make for the perfect musical marriage, at least on paper. Such heightened expectations are part of what makes Vis-à-Vis an ultimately disappointing listen. Taped a day apart at two 2005 German concert performances, the disc’s six tracks run nearly 70 minutes. Gratkowski jockeys between alto sax and several clarinets, dipping liberally into his supply of extended techniques, but also willing to play it straight to leaven the barrage of reed pops, tongue clucks and purrs. His clarinet work is gorgeous on “Mix Fraktal” and he breaks out its hulking bass and contrabass cousins for colorful, expressive workouts elsewhere. He more than holds his own in perspicacious conversation with his elder.

Mengelberg sounds oddly subdued in places, his patterns beautifully formed and blithely byzantine, but somewhat lacking in the signature deliriousness that makes them such a singular pleasure. A few telltale coughs that pepper portions of the first piece point to a possible cause and while the audible enervation is by no means pervasive, it still brings the dates down a notch. Still, an ailing Mengelberg is a better bet than most unimpaired pianists and the moments where he’s keyed up are routinely sublime.

The disc’s other strike comes in the protracted lengths of several of the pieces, which begin to wear thin and find the duo settling into ruts and biding time. Listeners familiar with either musician will want to investigate this meeting, but I left my listening sanctum feeling desirous of something more.

By Derek Taylor

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