Bertrand Denzler - Tenor

Solo instrumental records can be difficult to live with, but they're often worth the effort. At their best, they give us windows into the deep, lifelong relationships many performers develop with their chosen instrument over years of multi-hour practice sessions, listening, experimenting, playing with ensembles of all kinds. They can share intimacies simply impossible through performances in group settings, private experiences that many musicians have in the walls of their practice rooms and studios that even their closest musical collaborators might never hear.

And I must admit that I'm especially partial to solo sax albums. Though my "years of shedding" experiences have all been with guitars and the voice, I often feel like I was meant to play the saxophone. I love the "normal" voice of saxes, especially altos and tenors. I love the huge range in timbre that is possible, the ease of wicked vibrato, the many kinds of scale and arpeggio runs that lend themselves to nimble sheets of notes, the clarity of articulation possible, and on and on. And it's a great instrument for extended techniques: growl tones, slap tongues, multiphonics, alternate fingerings, altissimo, reed biting--I love it all. Anthony Braxton's "For Alto" is an all-time favorite album of mine, and I've been delighted to know the solo work of many others: Zorn, Abe, Lacy, Parker, Butcher, and so on. So I was delighted to receive Bertrand Denzler's "Tenor" for review. I was not familiar with Denzler's work before this disc, but I'll definitely be looking for more.

"Tenor" is made of three long tracks that were recorded on one day (and it sounds like they're probably all part of one long improvisation or composition broken into three sections for tracking convenience). Presumably this is a studio recording, with close micing in a small space. There are no effects used here, and even the tracking room gives Denzler no reverbs or delays to play with or against. It's all Tenor, all of the time.

Denzler's playing is pure patience. This is a delicate record, in effect a drone/ambient affair, and every note and extended technique is carefully executed to keep the focus on sounds produced rather than the person producing them. I don't know if this is improvisation, but it sounds very composed. There are only a few notes used on the whole record, no vibrato, no shredding Coltrane licks, and because of this I think its appeal extends beyond fans of "saxophone music." In fact, long passages of the album sound almost electronic in their careful realization.

"Filters" opens the record on a long Bb (concert Ab) that is continually teased throughout the course of its 17+ minutes. As the title implies, Denzler manipulates the pitch by adjusting his oral cavity, through alternate fingerings, and through multiphonics, creating a series of rhythmic and melodic interjections out of his fundamental note. If you're not familiar with these kinds of sounds, imagine solo Tuvan throat singing, making melodies out of overtones while the root continues to sound, and you're getting somewhere near this kind of effect. To that basic sonic approach, the alternate fingerings add quick pitch/tone adjustments that also have a rhythmic component, and some of the multiphonics evoke louder, more abrasive sounds, especially in the last third of the track. While dynamics stay within a fairly consistent range in the early part of the track, there are some louder moments in the last section as well, especially in the 12-14 minute range, where multiphonics almost sound like bowed guitar feedback at times. Many of the rhythm/filter/overtone motifs repeat and oscillate throughout the piece, creating a very composed feel. Denzler does stop to breathe, reattacking his horn again and again, but this doesn't detract from the drone music vibe for me--if anything it heightens the tension through repetition.

Earlier minutes of "Signals" continue to work with some of the same materials used in "Filters," but a few additional pitches are introduced. Occasionally tonguing effects are used to stop or flutter the pitches, sometimes while they're also being manipulated through multiphonics. A few very high pitches appear around the 10 minute mark (the "signals?") which reappear a few more times throughout the piece.

Like "Filters," "Airtube" is a fairly literal description of its music--this piece works with breathing and sucking sounds, sometimes with different keys depressed to change the size/resonance of the instrument, slaptongues that violently and percussively pop through the horn, overblows, etc. This piece moves away from the drone/ambient implications of the first two tracks toward a music steeped in almost industrial sounding rhythms. It also uses the widest dynamic range of the album, with incredibly loud moments and others that are almost inaudible. There are some particularly stunning moments that seem to be produced by following hard slaptongues with extended breathing sounds--I've never heard anything quite like it.

Obviously this kind of music isn't for everyone, but for readers of KiC who like EAI and drone music while shuddering at the potential "macho jazz" implications of a solo sax album, this album will be a pleasant surprise.

--first published at Killed In Cars

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