Ulrich Lask: Lask (ECM 1217)

ECM 1217

Ulrich Lask
Lask

Ulrich Lask alto saxophone, synthesizer
Meinolf Bauschulte drums
Maggie Nicols voice
Recorded November 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland

“Not many people see the wisdom in madness.”

Take a little Mr. Bungle, mix in some Elliot Sharp, add a dash of Claudia Phillips, and you may just get something akin to this strikingly outlandish rarity from 1982. The voice of Maggie Nicols is the solder that holds everything together, while Ulrich Lask’s laser-like sax and labored synth weave an industrial spell at every turn of the set’s assembly line. The bubbly electronics of “Drain Brain” spray-paint the malaise of a post-punk modernity, where duties and obligations engage one another in a rather debilitating tango with the children’s rhyme “Rain, rain, go away.” Our core confrontations are laid out on the dissecting table of the “Tattooed Lady,” whose multiphonic screams burrow into the urban web of ignorance that clothes us in prescription. This brings us to the album’s reigning highlight. “Kidnapped” is a tongue-in-cheek yet visceral autobiographical experiment about woman who is snatched away for the sole purpose of recording “that new-fangled…funny music with a beat” in ECM’s Ludwigsburg studio. Lask manages to keep pace with the boggling skitters and saxophonic squeals of Nicols, who stretches these enchantments well into “Should We, Geanie?” This speculative exercise in authoritarianism looks at social relations through a glass darkly as neither catalysts nor inhibitions, but rather as tattered newspapers stuffed into the human dichotomy, exploitable only through the vocal act. Thus does the stormy narrative of “Unknown Realms” transform maternity into ancestral longing. Here, the landscape is treated like an entity, a plane where inception is breathlessness, breathlessness is signal, and signal is song. Walking hand in hand with the “Poor Child,” we find a klezmer-like essay on worldly power and the lone citizen just trying to make ends meet on a puddle-splashed street corner. But when we pull our pockets out to cartoonish lengths, we find, as prophesied in “Too Much – Not Enough,” that the generative force of all meaning is its very emptiness.

Lask might seem like an anomaly in the ECM catalog, when really it stays true to the label’s ever-adventurous spirit. Dementia as the new art, or art as the new dementia? You decide.

<< Pat Metheny Group: Offramp (ECM 1216)
>> Steve Tibbetts: Northern Song (ECM 1218)

Alfred Harth: This Earth! (ECM 1264)

 

Alfred Harth
This Earth!

Alfred Harth tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet
Paul Bley piano
Trilok Gurtu percussion
Maggie Nicols voice
Barre Phillips bass
Recorded May 1983, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This Earth! represents Alfred Harth’s second ECM appearance, supporting a stellar cast of musicians that includes Barre Phillips on bass, Paul Bley at the keys, Trilok Gurtu on percussion, and the inimitable Maggie Nicols doing what she loves. The words are by Vicky Scrivener, which could easily be a pen name for Nicols herself—such is the immediacy with which the words seem to pour from her lungs.

“Female Is The Sun” is the album’s anthem. Structured around a counterpoint of bass clarinet and pianistic asides, its skeleton comes to life through Nicols’s animations. Each verse hoists us deeper into the sky, until we begin to feel the heat of that “old gold woman” who oversees our every waking moment:

The earth’s hot eye reels
fenced
and groans before
vestal temperament

The piano and bass in “Relation To Light, Colour and Feeling” are like two adjacent houses. Between them, a sagging clothesline, from which wordless songs, doubled by sax, hang in the breeze of a balmy afternoon. Words await us at the end, each a folded cloth, a swaying branch, a chirping bird.

Luxurious mezzotints and shades
glowing wash of tones

A percussive introduction opens us to the fabulous spoken word performance of “Studying Walk, A Landscape.” Nicols carries us along with her unpretentious tugs, inscribing the scenery with tightened, almost saxophonic squeals. There is an urban whimsy to be found here, refreshing but also tinged by world-weary bitterness. Phillips also has a lovely solo in this whimsical track with heft and shape.

A wish, relief from a circle

In “Body & Mentation,” piano and bowed bass engage Harth’s tenor with bright energy. Gurtu spreads his palms wide through these aural veins, Harth tracing with a palmist’s care. Their interplay vacillates: a few steps from Gurtu, a few expulsions from Harth. Each move forward italicizes the piece’s sentence structure, closing on an elegiac statement from Bley.

Love’s tug –
our barge;
sweet clamorous tidings
on the unique
journey backwards
to progression.

“Energy: Blood/Air” reveals the album’s most porous textures. Over a tightly knit ostinato, Harth breathes life into Nicols, who skims a poem’s surface before slipping into protracted improvisation. Bley floats a light solo over our heads, gathered up amid a handful of bass.

Today she sits
in the angled skies…
lowering lids
at the blushing
earth.

The “Three Acts Of Recognition” that follow slip a contemplative card into this highly charged deck as Harth’s tender yet robust tenor ladles sound into our silence. Some well-chosen reverb lends a throated quality his song. Overtones mingle as piano chords lay down new ground for every self-aware step. A pause. Bley reaches into his instrument, plucking and strumming strings directly, while Harth spins molecules in the air. Another pause. We return to the keyboard, flowing through to the end.

Between the clean
and tender sheets
we’ll hear us out.

“Come Oekotopia” crackles in rain sticks and cymbals, drawing bass from the soil. Harth improvises over Phillips’s nimble strumming. His long-held note midway through is one of the album’s highlights. Percussive bells diffuse this energy. Nicols makes a phonemic cameo at the end.

The mind streams
to pulse
relinquishing

Her subsequent recitative in “Waves Of Being” offsets a gorgeous solo from Bley, who cannot help but raise his own voice in the flare of the moment. Phillips’s bass is bright and bleeds into Gurtu’s string of metal (gongs), wood (sticks), and exoskeletons (shells). Harth’s bass clarinet bubbles with finality, fading into a sustained pluck of piano strings.

Accapella
flourishing
descants…
Acoustically
tonic.

“Transformate, Transcend Tones and Images” shows Nicols in fine melodic form. As the album’s last image, seems to thrive at its center. Nicols adlibs the remainder, as if to dissolve these impressions just enough so that no one can claim them. “Woman in a violet tail-coat,” she sings, “blows her soul-blue sax on south bank.” But we never hear that sax. Instead, we get a string of unrecorded words:

…translate…
…transcend…
…transform…

leading us into the unknown discoveries of the journey ahead.

Harth is an attentive player who writes without erasing, sings without opening his mouth, exhales without hypocrisy. His notes are often shared on This Earth!, but he is never the mimic. Among this session’s band mates, Gurtu proves to be a particularly interesting choice. His cymbal-focused work adds the illusion of a full kit without the overbearing weight thereof. Bley and Phillips, on the other hand, are unmistakably present. Yet Nicols’s voice is the real poetry of the album. She transcends the words she sings even as she inhabits them, bringing genuine physicality to their contours.

Another out-of-print gem, its elusiveness makes it all the more visceral an experience once it finds its way to your turntable.

From left: Maggie Nicols, Alfred Harth, Paul Bley, Barre Phillips, Trilok Gurtu

(photo by Ralph Quinke)