Axel Dörner/Fred Lonberg-Holm/Michael Zerang
IMAGINE A FRANK Lloyd Wright stained-glass-window border magnified a hundred times and you'll have some notion of the Meniscus label's elegantly somber, geometric CD booklets. These attractively stark covers assure you of the rigor behind the label's avant-garde recordings as surely as a thrash LP cover with a cartooned skeleton in Dr. Martens cues you to the mile-a-second fun inside. The fledgling Minneapolis label has shown an unusual affinity for the subtleties of improvisation, with releases ranging from a gracefully austere piano recital from Matthew Goodheart, Songs From the Time of Great Questioning, to the playful and noisy musical pickup games on Gino Robair's duo/trio release Buddy Systems.
MBEK, a collaboration between longtime Seattle-based co-conspirators bassist Michael Bisio and violinist Eyvind Kang, might be the label's most accessible set to date (though not so much so as to inspire your kin to unload their Kenny G. CDs on eBay anytime soon). Opening with a dramatically emotional (but not overripe) rendition of John Coltrane's "Seraphic Light," Kang harnesses some wild bowing to carry a gospel melody, while Bisio's darkly percussive lines not only recall Jimmy Garrison's work on the original, but even allude tangentially to Rashied Ali's battery of bells and cymbals. The duo begins actual swinging on "The Bizser," a number owing as much to Joe Venuti as Billy Bang. More dissonant, though equally engaging, is "After the Break," where Bisio and Kang egg each other on in explosive outbursts of strums and plucks.
Claque employs its noise more like a cudgel. The trio of German trumpeter Axel Dörner, and Chicago improv-scene stalwarts Fred Lonberg-Holm (on cello and hose segment), and percussionist Michael Zerang provides a jittery program of brass bleats and scratching string, along with drumming that sounds like your drunk friends stumbling around the kitchen looking for omelet fixings at 3:00 a.m. I usually take this type of, er, spontaneous composition in quarter-teaspoon-sized swallows. Yet there are enough lulls--in the form of long, sustained tones on "Satchel," and low-key percussive rumbles on "Kasu"--that it's an entertaining listen. Also somewhat draining, and hardly recommended as a wake-up disc, particularly if you've been indulging in any late-night cooking of your own.