recordings & reviews
Michael Vlatkovich Quartet | Chris Garcia — drums, David Mott — baritone sax, Michael — trombone, Jonathan Golove — cello | May 19, 2003 | Outpost Performance Space, Albuquerque | Photo by Mark Weber
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This disc is the product of a May 19, 2003 concert at the Outpost Performance Space in, you guessed it, Albuquerque. The hour long set represented on this recording is a wonderful collection of music played by a rather eclectic yet blended quartet. The instrumentation of percussion, baritone sax, electric cello, and trombone shows a clever amount of sonic unification as well as diversity. The performers aren’t afraid of the full range of their instruments (several times I thought Mr. Vlatkovich switched to trumpet) and they are able to carve out their own musical space when necessary. The electric cello doesn’t quite have the same edgy presence as the other instruments and that is used as an asset instead of a liability.
Each piece contains a playful sense of freedom and structure. From the first gesture of Black Triangles, Yellow Corn, and Pink Medicine Drops through the “oom pah pah” section to the freewheeling bari solo and then the punchy trombone/sax duet that gradually pulls everyone in, etc. and so on, there is a real Zappa-esque feeling throughout the disc. We go to unexpected places within a single track but each move, no matter how drastic, sounds right. The music seems to come from a place of serenity and organicism. I’ve known a number of people who respond this way to time in New Mexico and it seem the Michael Vlatkovich Quartet has fallen under the same spell.
The quartet has an excellent sense of pacing and silence. Gestures sit in space, the group breathes as a unit, and they have an excellent sound color. The opening of Blue Fragments has a spunky tune (almost cutesy) in muted trombone and electric cello while the bari sax riffs unencumbered. The opening lyrical solo by the bari sax in Every Second of Every Minute of Every Hour is sensitive and beautiful. I’m sorry I missed the concert but I’m glad to have this record of it. Jay Batzner.
Trombonist Michael Vlatkovich is a stalwart of the LA creative music community, an early cohort of Vinny Golia and other artists associated with the multi-instrumentalist’s Nine Winds imprint. He has led his own ensembles since the early 1980s, emphasizing an idiomatically off-center compositional vocabulary and providing ample space for improvisation. Recorded at Albuquerque’s Outpost Performance Space in 2003, this quartet set with baritone saxophonist David Mott, electric cellist Jonathan Golove and drummer Christopher Garcia shows how Vlatkovich’s writing can encompass stentorian themes and sardonic waltzes in a single piece without fracturing it into vaguely connected sections. He is also adept at slipping in such sudden jarring changes in direction as a riveting unison phrase in the midst of a pensive, elastically stated canon without sabotaging the overall mood of the piece. As an improviser, Vlatkovich is thoroughly grounded in the post-Mangelsdorff trombone lexicon, but throws down his chops sparingly. When Vlatkovich and Mott do lock horns, the resulting intensity is refreshingly stunning. Still, Vlatkovich’s music frequently has a formal bearing that owes much to the ensemble-minded work of Mott, Garcia and Golove, whose electric instrument proves to be remarkably flexible in lending rhythmic support and tonal mooring, or providing counter lines and harmonic extensions. It’s music with more than a quarter-century’s refinement behind it. Vlatkovich has known the loneliness of the long distance runner a long time – it’s time for folks to catch up to him. Bill Shoemaker
This is an electic mix of instruments. How often do you see electric cello jamming with a trombone or a sax? So how would this strange blend of instruments work? ‘ALiveBUQUERQUE’ is an almost hour long album made up of five creative tracks where the music goes off on interesting journeys. One track is over 17 minutes in length! The long cuts allow the band to explore unusual instrumental combinations and they play with and off each other. Instrumentally taxed might describe the way the players jam. At times soft and slow, and then fast and frenzied, and everything in between. Check out “Every Second of Every Minute of Every Hour” (17:36) and maybe you’ll get an idea. I was surprised at how relevant and good the music got. It wasn’t disjointed or too ‘way out.’ I enjoyed the musicianship and appreciated the unique instruments and their interplay. As I said, a clearly eclectic mix that really worked out fine. Check it out.
Copyright 2007 A. Canales Review Ed fanofgold at yahoo dot com The CRITICAL REVIEW SERVICE PO BOX 3593 El Paso, TX 79923 USA
Journeyman West Coast composer and trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, who over the course of his 20-year career has always been—in the words of help wanted ads—a self-starter, has been particularly busy of late. These two issues (one on his own label Thankyou Records) are the second and third from Vlatkovich’s hand that I’ve reviewed in the past month. All—the other was a trio date on Origin—clearly are the work of the same, fertile musical mind. Yet each demonstrates how flexible Vlatkovich’s muse is.
Parlor Games is a showcase for his compositions. Like his trombone playing, they demonstrate a concern with timbre as well as a stylistic reach that extends from free blowouts to peppy show tunes. The core vocabulary, though, is a kind of modern romanticism, full of evocative turns of phrase and rich harmonies. Even on “Were the Dogs Drinking Water or Was It Roller Skating?” (Vlatkovich has a knack for titles that are at once odd and poetic, yet comic), delivered by a four-piece band, he elicits a vibrant range of colors, using a variety of mutes on his trombone. And on Warren Hartman’s “The Kissing Song”, one wonders why more singer-songwriters don’t employ a percussion and trombone backup band. On most tracks Vlatkovich uses an ensemble of six to eight pieces.
These pieces are compositions, not tunes intended to bookend a round of solos. Vlatkovich is adept at nurturing kernels of melody into fully bloomed compositions. On “Bye Bye ‘D’ Train”, the piece opens with a simple two-note declaration that’s followed by a related four-note lick. The entire eleven and a half minute fantasy grows from those six notes, eventually getting worked into a mariachi fanfare theme. The composer is well served here by soloists Vinny Golia, a regular collaborator, on baritone saxophone, and bassist Dominic Genova as they keep threading those notes through their improvisations. As the solos drift into collective improvisations those themes continue to be reiterated.
The opening “Angeles National Forest” is an atmospheric sound painting. Again Vlatkovich uses a simple rhythmic birdcall of a theme, here setting it against a ground fog of long tones from cello and contra-alto clarinet. The composer calls out “wa-wa!” from the underbrush. The piece builds to an ominous climax. That contra-alto clarinet, played expertly by David Riddles, adds a basso luster to several tracks. Its velvety texture enriches the ensemble’s bottom. That’s especially evident on the cinematic “Why Don’t You See Me”, which opens up with a detective show theme, followed by the evoking of a creaky merry-go-round, finally giving way to a free-form chase scene.
Tenor saxophonist Jay Hutson adds powerful blowing to several tracks, notably the closer “Animal Circus of Snow”. The piece starts with what sounds like a band getting ready to line up for a parade. The brass plays bell tones and arpeggios, while the drums rehearse a marching beat and Hutson wails away on tenor. The seemingly random ensemble suddenly makes a poignant modulation, leading to an unsettled circus rhythm. Hutson serves as the lead voice throughout and, when the massed horns rejoin him after playing unaccompanied, it is as if they were an extension of his horn. Vlatkovich and his rotating team of drummers also underpin the melodic development with shifting rhythms. On “Were Dogs…” David Crigger starts with a funk beat that slips into a reggae groove—such subtleties are characteristic of the joys within Vlatkovich’s compositions.
Michael Vlatkovich refers to his three-piece ensemble as a “tritet,” maybe, I assume, to avoid the inevitable comparisons to all those other horn plus bass and drum trios. It’s easy to see why. While that standard trio is typically used because of the openended freedom it allows, Vlatkovich’s vision is more orchestral. True, the melodic material that bookend the performances tends to be little more than fanfares. But these simple melodic declarations then get symphonic treatment. Employing an arsenal of mutes the leader evokes an entire wind section while Jonas Tauber’s bass saws away with the vitality of a full string section. His arco solo (he favors arco work throughout) on “The Daily Parade…” has the intricacy of a classical etude but never fails to swing. Ken Ollis on drums complements this with symphonic rumbles, rolls, splashes and crashes.
Right out of the gate on “Our costumes…” Vlatkovich sounds the charge bouncing out a bugle call-like figure. Leading into his solo, he simplifies it at first, exploring its implications with Tauber’s bowing out with a counterpoint that rises to restate the opening motif and set the tone for his own solo. His improvisation evolves into a rapid, repeated figure backed by Ollis’ brushes over which Vlatkovich wah-wahs away. A drum solo that starts with brushes but ends with a cadence played with sticks that marches the track on to its conclusion.
Throughout the compositions are developed not as a series of solos but as interconnected episodes within a narrative. On “South for the Winter,” Vlatkovich develops the Bop theme over Ollis’ agitated martial beat. When he gives way, Tauber slows the pace down, at first taking the tune in another direction which circles back to an up tempo duet with the trombonist. Ollis on drums starts by rummaging around his set before reestablishing the martial mood with timpani-like accents. The closer ,”The Blue Robes,” flows from a majestic bass cadenza to a brief trombone-percussion conversation to trombone flaying away over a darting bass line. As usual, Vlatkovich allows plenty of space to let his accompanists shine through. Tauber matches the virtuosity of his opening arco work with pizzicato gymnastics. Ollis then systematically sounds out various components of his set. His summoning of his percussive resources is similar to the way Vlatkovich makes use of the resources of his “tritet” throughout this striking recital. by David Dupont, Cadence © Cadence Magazine 2005
A couple of the pieces on Parlor Games use bits of poetry. Call and Response is a full-blown poet-musician collaboration between Vlatkovich and Dottie Grossman. “Full-blown”, though, seems not quite the precise word for this intimate session. The structure is simple: Grossman reads a short poem, or two or three related poems, and then Vlatkovich responds on unaccompanied trombone. This only works if both parties are at their best—and they are.
Vlatkovich gets a chance to explore the range of advanced trombone techniques and muting. No contemporary trombonist is as diligent in exploring the trombone palette. But Vlatkovich is not showing off. Instead, each solo reflects the subject and mood of the poem. Sometimes the humor is obvious, as when after two poems using geographic imagery he plays a slightly sour rendition of “America”. Or after the poem with the line “I still find human babies menacing”, he intones a mocking bit of the Brahms lullaby. But these touches of slapstick are just a minor way in which he responds to Grossman’s words. Elsewhere he evokes insects or machinery or a column of compressed air. And on several cuts he lets loose flights of lyricism, which seem to be his most heartfelt statements. After the love poem “In the evening”, he rhapsodizes with a song built on quartal harmonies.
That Vlatkovich is inspired by Grossman’s words is not at all surprising; she is an accomplished wordsmith. Each poem is a compact expression of whimsy and heartbreak. Some are little more than a dozen words long, yet their emotional resonance is deep. Grossman roots the poems in the every day—two are literally transcribed from the newspaper—yet they turn unexpectedly into the surreal. In one poem she explains what seems to be her aesthetic:
“This poem is part cartoon
and part injection.
I hope it has the clarity of wind chimes
Or the bloody sparkle of broken glass.”
Grossman delivers this with an almost offhand, conversational tone, as if the words just trip off her tongue over the breakfast table. This seeming casualness belies the care with which the words are chosen and set into the lines, and the way her enunciation does justice to the well-crafted verse.
She never overstates her ever-present wry humor, either in recitation or on the page. A number of brief, haiku-like poems are built around the character of “Henny Youngman”. One calls for putting “Henny Youngman” back in Christmas. The final one has Henny Youngman as a kind of post-modern Wee Willy Winky going about the town “just to make sure / we’re all watching enough TV”. She also plays lightly with irony as on this poem:
“The poetry of children
is that they just got here,
so they’re still smooth
as river rocks.”
She doesn’t feel the need to point out that those rocks are smooth precisely from years and years of having the river wash over them. Such are the subtleties of her verse, echoed by Vlatkovich’s vivid statements, and taken together, a rare, deeply entertaining recital.
by David Dupont | 15 December 2004