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Compact Disc Cover: Original Watercolor Bass Meets Voice by Jan Brown Checco


Landscapes - Bass Meets Voice

The debut recording of one of the most original duos in contemporary music today. Jackie Allen and Hans Sturm bring a fresh approach to some of the great jazz standards as well as eloquent original repertoire that refuses to be categorized.

Red Mark CD 9217
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Notes by Kirk Silsbee

There is little in the way of precedent for what Allen and Sturm do. They will both concede that singers Sheila Jordan and Nancy King and their respective collaborators, bassists Harvie Swartz and Glenn Moore, are sources of inspiration. But the similarities between Allen and Sturm and these duos end there. The other teams deal primarily with standards and jazz songs, deconstructed and reconstructed (in the case of Jordan and Swartz) or rendered in homespun whimsy (as do King and Moore). Allen and Sturm create much of their own material -either improvised or written. In the case of familiar songs, their interpretations are strikingly original. "We’re trying to strip the music down to its core," says Allen, well-known as a jazz singer and teacher in Chicago.

"Hans and I started doing gigs together in the early 1980s when we were both in college (University of Wisconsin-Madison)," she continues. "He played in one of my first quintets and we’ve gotten together for other projects over the years. Hans is definitely the more experimental between the two of us. He’s far more studied than I am and he’s played a lot of 20th Century classical music, avant garde music and, of course, jazz. I carry my instrument in my back pocket and yet I’m not afraid to explore either. We’ve found that we each have a need to take the music into new areas." Sturm offers, "This music has taken on a life of its own. Since I write most of the music, it exists-as does the poetry-in my head first. Then, through the process, it becomes something else again with Jackie’s input."

Dr. Sturm has an extensive background as a symphony bassist - with the Dubuque, Madison and Muncie Symphony Orchestras among others - and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. He founded the new music ensemble Fireight (with double bass, percussion, soprano and koto) and works with the Trinkle Brass Works Trio. The latter group concentrates on the music of 20th Century Latin American composers, with an instrumentation of trumpet, marimba and double bass. He’s no stranger to the jazz side of the new music street, either. Sturm studied extensively with bassist Richard Davis and has worked with players as diverse as saxophonists Pete Christlieb, James Spaulding, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman; clarinetist Eddie Daniels; pianists Marilyn Crispell and Willie Pickens.

Jazz musicians use the word musical to differentiate situations where creativity is part of the equation from settings where their input is akin to assembly line work. The word is also applied by them (or not applied) to performers. Allen is one of the treasures of current-day Chicago jazz and certainly musical in all senses. She’s valued for the layered qualities she’s able to invest in a given song, both in terms of technique and emotional investment. Allen is particularly effective on slow tempos (listen to how she fills the spaces on her own "Admit It"), yet she’s also an exultantly swinging vocalist. Both of these properties are in evidence on this collection of recordings. The proof in her worth is when Allen can take a shopworn song like "Green Dolphin St." and perform it in a way that you’ve never heard before. With Sturm’s non-specific pizzicato work opening and Allen just sort of falling in, it isn’t until the piece is well underway that the "tune" emerges. That’s called spontaneous arrangement and there aren’t many people who do it this well. Conversely, Allen is able to swing a number like "I Want To Be Happy" with only Sturm’s percussive backing (tapping on his instrument) or his vigorous bass line and nothing else. The absence of piano in this duo robs Allen of the singer’s traditional intonation compass and her sure-footed maneuvering is admirable. This is an artist who can grease her own skillet.

The most adventurous piece here is Sturm’s "Landscapes" suite, five movements that serve as tone parallels to different geographic designations. "This work," says Sturm, "was inspired largely by my experience with the Trinkle Brass Works Trio, where we explore the classical music of Latin America. I wrote this with Jackie in mind. I don’t know of anyone else with her interpretive powers and the way she turns a musical phrase, so it’s tailored for her." It is also one of the most demanding works in their repertoire. Allen recounts, "Some of the things in ‘Landscapes’ didn’t make sense to me, musically. There are places where there are no measures, no bar lines. This is a form that gets very difficult to navigate, where I’ve got an entrance that’s six-and-a-half beats from a given number or where I have to sing dissonance against a chord. After awhile it began to make sense." Sturm adds, "There are places in ‘Landscapes’ where both of us line up-obviously in the score-and then there are places where we’re both on our own."

"We performed at the Edinburgh International Double Bass Festival," Allen recounts. "We were sandwiched in between two other acts that had big names and we came on, with all these people talking, not paying any attention to us so we decided to go for broke. We got into ‘Landscapes’ and within about three minutes, the whole place was keyed on us. When we finished we got a huge ovation. It was entirely unexpected."

"Blackwater" is a multi-dimensional work written by Sturm, inspired by the Beat writers - in particular, Allen Ginsberg’s "Howl." Sturm’s eerily evocative arco work sets the mood and Allen’s liquid song-spiel vocals (singing words or just sounds) act as oil on the already murky waters. "Blackwater" operates as a kind of miniature musical drama. Sturm’s own spoken text serves as a one-sided dialogue: a scenario of urban dislocation and a story of despair. "This is a combination story of several people from different parts of my life," he elaborates, "and some of them had real tragedy in their lives. I grew up near the Susquehanna River so water is a familiar motif from my childhood. Jackie’s telling one story and I’m telling another and the two together make this kind of film noir narrative." The compelling involvement of the various stratum of the piece obscures the fact that this is the work of just two people.

"I like to get the music off of the paper as soon as I can," says Allen. "Some of it has to stay on the page, after all, that’s what’s written. But it’s difficult to know when to freely interpret and when not to. Sometimes Hans will help me with direction. Sometimes I have to figure it out for myself. Sometimes what he gives me amounts to a set of bare bones and it’s up to me to put the flesh on them as I see it. I’m trying to figure out what’s in his head and how I can reproduce it so a lot of the responsibility is on me."

As Sturm sees it, "We’re trying to explore those areas where there are holes in the written music. It’s a process of uncovering and discovering, both in terms of limitations-which can be severe-and getting past those limitations. We’re stretching and trying, ultimately, to get past those limitations. The essence of what we’re trying to do is make beautiful music."

Freedom may not be free, but it certainly can be beautiful. Just listen.

Kirk Silsbee
October. 2, 1999