New Directions in Jazz Carpentry

Unusual item which I think is called Uneven Same – Saxophone Quartets (WIDE EAR RECORDS WER065), which showcases pieces composed by the Swiss musician Thomas K.J. Mejer. He’s been doing this since 1990, he’s a woodwind player himself, and for the pieces here he restricts himself to scoring for four saxophones alone.

One’s immediately tempted to start filing a record like this in the “jazz” pigeonhole, but that’s probably an error as the music has as much syncopation and swing feeling as two lead weights; instead our man Mejer is paying close attention to the individual voices of alto, tenor, soprano, and bass saxophone, and exhibits an interest in weaving complicated, detailed lines. Matter of fact I can’t imagine any of these pieces in the hands of jazz players; evidently what’s required is clean lines, pinpoint accuracy, and rigid tone control. Any dynamics resulting from the interplay of the four voices has been ruthlessly pre-arranged and scored by Mejer, not improvised by the performing puffers. In this regard, the Saxophone Quartet (who also happen to be named Uneven Same) turn in an absolutely perfect job, with not a single smeared note nor a single missed cue. Even the “overblowing” technique has been scored into the work. The true strengths of the team are displayed very well on the slower, more considered tracks, where the required discipline shines through and not a man wobbles at his post.

Did I say “man”? What a gaffe – Saxophone Quartet Uneven Same are all women, and the team of Manuela Villiger, Eva-Maria Karbacher, Vera Wahl and Silke Strahl can all take a bow for their impeccable work and poise in realising this intricate work. Mejer’s achievements obviously amount to a lot more than meets the eye; while the four parts of ‘Sulpizianische Bilderwelt’ are audience-grabbers frontloaded with incident and exciting melody, it is perhaps on ‘Resonating Voids’ that our man starts to earn his salt as a dissonant avant-garde brooder. We hear four sections from this 2010 composition, and it’s as intriguing a proposition as ever caused breath to be drawn through a metal bell. For one thing, it’s scored for four contra-bass saxes, a notorious instrument which stands taller than a man (if you hold it that way), and produces lower register tones with the ease of a Venusian growling bear. Tune in instantly to hear these four foghorns sounding the death knell for humanity with their stern, plaintive groans; it shows that Mejer’s music is much more than clean lines and control.

I doubt that even the combined team of Axel Dorner with Robin Ward could produce such bone-shuddering dronery as these four women on this recording. And isn’t ‘Resonating Voids’ just the coolest title? A great way of referencing the essential conundrum of this most maligned of instruments, indicating that where everyone else sees a solid metal body with moving keys, Thomas K.J. Mejer sees nothing but a void – a vacuum! After this, you’ll never settle for the Rova Saxophone Quartet again. From 13th June 2022.

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