Unconventional Measures

A different drummer: Ninh Lê Quan

A different drummer: Ninh Lê Quan

Look, if one more helpful corporate-trainer type twitters, "It's not the product, it's the process" in my immediate vicinity, I swear I'll purge his Pentium-propelled laptop of every last damn PowerPoint presentation on How to Submerge Yourself in the Hive-Mind (um, I mean, How to Be a Team Player) and stomp on his foot besides. Granted, when I'm on my deathbed, my innate proclivity to obsess over results will flood me with regret for roses unsmelled and bubble baths untaken. But part of my aversion to the life-is-a-journey model of existence is that most of the people uttering those platitudes seem to be traveling first class. Me, I'm huddled off in steerage.

And yet, I'm often taken (and taken in) by the obsession with process that's practiced by musical improvisers, as frustrating as the results might be. I'm not saying that my rock-bred sense of instant gratification doesn't respond thirstily to any hint of a melody or motif. But taking your eyes off the prize for a spell and submerging yourself in music-making that not only doesn't look for an instant payoff, but whose ultimate motives remain obscure to the listener (hell, maybe even to its players) has its own rewards.

Sometimes those rewards are more immediate than you'd think. Take Quicksand (Meniscus), for instance, the recording from Frank Gratkowski, Georg Graewe, and Paul Lovens, which manages a surprising amount of cohesion despite its abstraction. Gratkowski's fluid, round tone on reeds keeps the more theoretical explorations listenable. Humorous, too--there's a gleeful run that I'm convinced is a distillation of a belly laugh. Pianist Graewe tosses clusters of notes at his fellows, and veteran percussionist/singing-saw maestro Lovens anchors the proceedings with his painterly style. And the three of them (sorry, but there's no other way to put this) flat-out cook on the end of "Second Coming."

In contrast, Tri-Dim, a Norwegian trio, employs the same scrapes and clatters filling the toolkit of most improvisers, but they use silence as much as clangor. On their EP Tri-Dimprovisations (bp) they shape their communal noisemaking into airy, jumpy ventures. In spite of guitarist David Stackenäs's efforts not to play prettily, the delicacy of his ruminations is pleasing nonetheless. Tenor saxophonist Håkon Kornstad often preserves a clean, elegant tone, and Ingar Zach is a nimble, sometimes whimsical percussionist.

Just as unconventional, but softer and (despite its brooding surface) more accessible, is La Voyelle Liquide (Erstwhile) from percussionists Günter Müller and Ninh Lê Quan. The duo shapes majestic, haunting sound sculptures out of electronic whooshes and whirs, cymbal clatter and hisses. The sounds unwind at a stately, measured pace while Quan's "surrounded bass drum" (a single bass drum encircled with cymbals) pounds away in the background like an echo of thunder in the next county.

Less concerned with pure sonics, the unclassifiable Bay Area combo Species Being risk their improvisational necks over a safety net of gently pulsating grooves on Orgone Therapy (Chaosophy/Innerspace). The first track (which I guess I'll call Track Number One, since the tracks are numbered, not named) simmers at a temperature that could get dull mighty quickly, but holds interest over seven-plus minutes with only the most minimal, shimmering guitar and gently rolling percussion. When the group grows agitated and blustery, they begin to dangle promises of prog: Guitars roil; effects pedals modulate; keyboards squonk. Fortunately, Species Being never quite deliver on this threat.

Leaning more toward composition, the Phil Mosberg Quartet's Forest Through the Trees (Solitaire) is a solid set of prickly postbop. Guitarist Mosberg plays clean, distortion-free notes with a contrasting percussive attack, while Jon Irabagon contributes assertive tenor sax and clarinet. "Left Behind" is a straight sweet-and-sour ballad with a lovely melody, while the rhythm section of bassist Nate Bakkum and drummer Okraszewski unexpectedly dominates on the group showcase "Split the Difference."

Straddling the fence between composition and free-for-all is the self-titled, self-released CD of Explosion: Cerebral, which immortalizes drummer Eric Roth, bassist Zach Wallace, and tenor saxophonist Matt Bauder's productive college years at the University of Michigan. Though the group improvisations are startlingly fiery, they're sometimes unfocused. Still, their originals are confident: "Mayim Gadolin" features a vaguely gypsified Eastern European melody (lots of cymbals and salty, skronking sax line) while "LF" is pretty in an unsentimental way, with Bauder and Wallace softly meshing hornlike basslines with saxophone.

And at the far end of the spectrum, not even bothering all that much with reference to standard musical structure, are solo recitals from oboist Kyle Bruckmann and trumpeter Greg Kelley (who also plays in the ensemble Nmperign). Traveling into territory where ignoring compositional convention just isn't enough, they have to dismantle and reassemble the mechanics of performance. Bruckmann's Entymology (Barely Auditable) is the more conventional recording of the two, by the slimmest of definitions. He explores the tonal quality of the oboe, English horn (an alto oboe), and suona (a Chinese double-reeded instrument) through circular breathing, and puffing quietly into the mouthpiece. (It squelches like the straw in the world's biggest milk shake hitting the bottom of the glass). But the fluid, pensive vignettes here probably make the suburban Chicago parents sending their kids to him for music lessons breathe easier.

Kelley's aptly titled Trumpet (Meniscus) speaks to my traumatic experiences as the worst cornetist in the worst junior high school band ever. (After hearing our deathless rendition of "Nearer My God to Thee," our director declared that if we were the house band on the Titanic, he'd have taken his chances with the Atlantic.) While Bruckmann still maintains touchstones of a conventional reed sound, Kelley goes out of his way to make the trumpet sound like everything but itself: creaky springs, rusty hinges, lawn mowers chopping grass, balloons rubbing against one another. Or he mics himself just blowing air into the mouthpiece, an abuse of embouchure that would surely make my band teacher scramble for the lifeboats. Now there's an image that makes me want to haul out the Mr. Bubble and the General Foods International Coffee and celebrate every single damn moment of my life.