While cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm often plays amped and abrasive, as he is in the contexts of The Vandermark 5, Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, and his duo with Norwegian percussionist Ståle Liavik Solberg. Party Knüllers (cf. their album Gold, which I’ve also reviewed), this trio session with bassists Peter Kowald and Kent Kessler is all acoustic.
Flats Fixed was recorded fifteen years ago but released only in 2014. Lonberg-Holm, Kowald and Kessler met to record Flats Fixed in the studios of radio station WNUR, Illinois, in September 1998. A CD was planned and part-prepped at the time, but there were delays, and then Kowald died, suddenly, in 2002, and the recordings were shelved until Corbett Vs. Dempsey finally got them mastered in 2014.
Kowald is a key figure in European music. He came to prominence in the 1960s via the Globe Unity Orchestra and recordings with Alexander Schlippenbach and Peter Brötzmann. He went on to record prolifically for the FMP label, notably making a string of solo albums plus a brace of Duos, each comprising numerous short pieces recorded with a roll-call of Kowald’s peers. The posthumously released Flats Fixed is similarly variegated, with Kessler and Lonberg-Holm—both lynchpins of the Chicago music scene—as fine and fitting company.
After three short trio pieces, there are two quarter-hour trio improvisations, the latter of which bookend six appropriately-titled Miniatures, and the album is rounded out with a series of duets (“b & b” and “b & c” 1 through 4), mostly recorded after Kessler left the session. In all, there are 77 minutes of music here.
Of the five trio pieces, “FF 1” (7:10) is a sounding out, with all three players in restless, probing counterpoint. Lonberg-Holm moves from bowing against the pulse of both bassists’ picking to join them in a complex patterning of small plucks and tweaks, throwing in a few more short strokes as they play string-slides that effectively put a frictional brake on the action.
The music’s too changeable to pick apart in detail, but the next couple of pieces are more focused. Perhaps that isn’t entirely the correct word for either the smeary, distended daubs of sound that make up “FF 2” (5:58), or the squeaky but airy, all-bowed “FF 3” (3:23), but it well describes the trio’s focused attentiveness.
The two quarter hour trio pieces, “FF 4” and “FF 5” (tracks 4 and 11) present canvases big enough to accommodate both dramatic upsurges in action, energy and sonic density (cf. one minute into “FF 4”), and a hedging of the blankness into which quickly-dissipating energy threatens to slide (cf. three minutes into the peak energy intro to “FF 5”).
Throughout these long narrative improvisations there are flashes of nimbly walking jazz bass, emotive acro, and all-in freeform scrape and scrabble. But such recognisable strategies are essayed only momentarily, serving as anchor points for more mysterious divinations. The shorter pieces give the listener easier purchase.
For the Miniatures, John Corbett’s sleeve notes tell us, Kowald directed that: “When the music felt like it would go somewhere else, rather than following it they should find a stopping point.” In all but one case, the stoping place comes after a minute or so.
In some cases, anticipated brevity encourages oddity of expression (i.e. chuntering vox and duck-calls amid the more predictable string thrum on “Miniature 1”), but mostly the players focus on gestural concision (“Miniature 2”), or subordination to an implicit dramaturgy (“Miniature 3”) or to a specific texture (“Miniature 5”).
And of the duets, those without Kessler provide the session’s leanest, most frictional interactions, while the sole bass duet is a vigorous but harmonious thrum of fast-moving fingertips.
Peter Kowald bass; Kent Kessler bass; Fred Lonberg-Holm cello.
Buy Flats Fixed from Corbett Vs. Dempsey.