Terrain! Terrain! Pull Up! Pull Up!
 buddy, fly 15:12
 bng_gng 12:14
 z. rat #5 07:28
 La Marama 15:05
total playing time: 50:00
Large Ensemble, Hochschule der Künste Bern
Django Bates, conductor
Jonathan Maag/Michael Gilsenan, tenor saxophone
Marc Stucki, tenor saxophone (guest on z. rat #5)
Linus Amstad, alto saxophone · Alexandre Soussi, baritone saxophone
Dave Blaser/Lukas Thöni/Julian Hesse/Nicola Habegger, trumpet & flugelhorn
Michael Buchanan/Florian Weiss/Julia Rüffert, trombone
Jonas Beck, bass trombone · Daniel Brylewski, piano
Brian Archinal, vibraphone · Jeremias Keller, bass
Lucas Niggli, drums
This album’s composer Michael Wertmüller plays drums alongside saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and bassist Marino Pliakas in the collaborative trio Full Blast, and with Pliakas in Caspar Brötzmann’s NOHOME. Neither Wertmüller nor Pliakas play on Terrain! Terrain! Pull Up! Pull Up! (NEOS), but a young orchestra with a phenomenal rhythm section under the conduction of Django Bates deliver a performance that amplifies Full Blast’s muscular intensity, and outdoes it for discipline and exuberance.
Brötzmann is no doubt the better-known bandleader, but Wertmüller’s work has wider scope: he’s composed not only for jazz ensembles, but also for orchestras, chamber groups and opera, including recorded works with Ensemble KNM Berlin (Die Zeit, Eine Gebrauchsanweisung (GROB, 2003)), and, most pertinently, the 50 page score recorded as Sketches and Ballads by Full Blast and Friends, a sextet session which set the stage well for this new 16 piece conduction.
This is music of considerable rhythmic complexity. To the suggestion that his scores are “rhythmically so complex they’re almost unplayable,” Wertmüller says: “I always have a utopia in mind that goes hand in hand with ‘unplayability’. Musicians have to go to their limits, and sometimes beyond. That in turn results, more often than not, in something new.”
This performance, recorded at Moods jazz club, Zürich, in February 2015, features drummer Lucas Niggli (who, incidentally, employs Pliakas in his trio Steamboat Switzerland) alongside electric bassist Jeremias Keller. Saxophonist Marc Stucki guests on one of the four pieces, otherwise the orchestra is that of Bern University of the Arts (HKB).
The group is, as the sleeve notes put it, “an almost classic big band lineup,” with four trumpets and three trombones. But, with no name artist in the front line to defer to, the orchestra is marshalled around the rhythm section, and electric bass and Niggli’s powerhouse drumming (he cites Tony Williams and Terry Bozzio as influences) tip the balance toward rock/fusion.
“buddy, fly” casts off with a vigorous solo drum spot, then the muscular plasticity of the electric bass holding in check a springy unison horn chart. A sudden break lets in solo vibraphone luminosity and contrastingly sour alto sax with vocalisations, but rhythmic ostinatos bring back chunky electric bass and fat solo trombone, and tight-unison horns stab over a mass galumph to another break, this time for tenor and baritone saxophone, then muted trumpet over increasingly tribal beats. When these allow some slack pianist Daniel Brylewski cascades a solo into the concavity with Brian Archinal’s vibes glinting over its surface, but then there’s the first of two unexpected returns for the full ensemble, all four trumpets sounding off against vibes along the way, and a conference of cymbal-spattered reeds to finish. Except no, there’s time for yet another, harder rhythm irruption, and a concluding fanfare of swingtime horns. All this in about fifteen minutes.
“bng_gng”, taken mostly at a high tempo, is punchy and ebullient with Niggli and Keller occasionally pushing big band bluster, massed horns and acerbically garrulous tenor sax into blast beat territory. Some of their energy spills over into an almost cartoonishly rambunctious “z. rat #5”, a relatively short piece that features Marc Stucki’s tenor sax feature. He breaks with real intent from the ranks riding a rhythmic pummelling, Niggli breaking into a freewheeling full kit roil grounded by emphatic kick drumming. The unison re-join does nothing to lessen the intensity of a breathless performance, which would’ve been a phenomenal experience.
Niggli plays unaccompanied, initially with his hands, at the start of “La Marama”, then turns to freestyle backbeats when bass and vibes come in. Keller’s bassline leans closer to rock than jazz, but that’s overruled by ranked horns, collectively edgy riffing but individually exploratory as Keller switches to articulated picking. The orchestra sounds wired on the excitement of the rhythm section’s dynamism, and each reprise of staccato horn riffage is punchier and more elastic than the last. After ten minutes the horns cut out while Niggli plays a solo of full kit rolls punctuated by rapid, taut taut tom tom hits. The introduction of Keller’s thrumming bass creates a rich depth of texture before the horns briefly rejoin in serried riffing. A sudden silence is punctuated only by soft sax pecks, leading to a relatively light passage for bass, vibes, crisp percussion and an elect tenor sax, and a ratchet-tight full-group conclusion.
The young orchestra evidently threw themselves into the music’s complexities, and they either caught or ignited a fire in the rhythm section. As far as I’m aware, this was the first time Niggli and Keller played together. They should do so more often. I doubt that Wertmüller and Pliakas could’ve done better. Still, kudos to Wertmüller for the patently inspirational score, and to Django Bates for a palpably spirited conduction.