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The Hatology label continues to be one of improvised music's most wide-ranging and open-eared labels. Jason Bivins reviews four recent Hat releases that demonstrate the label's vitality.

Hatology Roundup

Perhaps improbably for an independent label, the Hat family has been cultivating and documenting exceptional music for over 30 years now. Long may the Uehlingers continue what they’re doing. These four releases showcase the label’s range – both historic and idiomatic – quite well.

Joe McPhee and Survival Unit II with Clifford Thornton
N.Y. N.Y. 1971

As many readers know, Werner X. Uehlinger actually started his label for the express purpose of documenting Joe McPhee’s music. McPhee – the Poughkeepsie-based saxophonist/trumpeter/composer – came on the scene in the late 1960s and appeared on a now-reissued recording by his mentor Clifford Thornton (whose Gardens of Harlem is in desperate need of reissue, by the way). After a few releases on CJR (all now available on Atavistic’s Unheard Music Series), Uehlinger released McPhee’s Black Magic Man and the relationship has existed ever since, resulting in some of the finest improvised music of the period. (Sadly, not all of it is currently available – vinyl hounds, take note.) Hatology has just reissued Live at WBAI’s Free Music Store (Hatology 624), a 1971 concert which was first available in 1996 and is now called N.Y. N.Y. 1971. The music – by McPhee on tenor and trumpet, Thornton on baritone horn, Byron Morris on soprano and alto, Mike Kull on piano, and Harold E. Smith on percussion – is hot and intense, coming straight from McPhee’s most fiery period. It features the core of McPhee’s repertory at the time, including the acetylene torch intensity of “Black Magic Man,” the declamatory “Nation Time” (where the horns blend with wonderful color), and the gorgeous ballad “Song for Lauren,” where McPhee really begins to establish his powerful lyric strain that would become so recognizable on later recordings. McPhee already sounds in full command of his horns – listen to his lovely trumpet intro to “Message from Denmark” – and the band sounds great too (the underrated Kull just crushes on “The Looking Glass I”). They’re at their most powerful on the intensely dark rise-and-fall of “Harriet,” an exceptional document of free improvisation from one of the music’s true masters.

Warne Marsh Quartet
Ne Plus Ultra

An equally important, but very different, reissue is the Warne Marsh Quartet’s Ne Plus Ultra (Hatology 603). The magisterial tenor saxophonist is joined here by alto player Gary Foster, bassist Dave Parlato, and drummer John Tirabasso on a live date from October 1969 at Occidental College in Los Angeles. There’s a famous story recalling how Marsh died onstage while performing “Out of Nowhere.” I’ve always been struck by this fact, not for its oddity but because it captures how Marsh was just constantly playing. Thankfully, he was also fairly well-documented. This disc doesn’t represent a landmark, necessarily; it’s no turning point in Marsh’s music or any evidence of reconceptualization. It’s just one of the better examples of this extraordinary, inventive and sympathetic player. Though often playing well-worn tunes, this quartet’s music is open and democratic music – and though most jazz fans don’t know these players, their performances are top notch, both tough-nosed and warmly intimate. The wending two-horn lines are sublime (recalling the best of Marsh’s work with Lee Konitz, an obvious inspiration for Foster), and the rhythm section is nimble (somewhat more pliable than a lot of haters of the Tristano school would have you think). The swan-diving of “Lennie’s Pennies” is irresistibly swingin’, as are the graceful readings of “Subconscious-Lee” and “317 E. 32nd.” But what makes Marsh so intense is not only the way he pursues freedom within conventional forms (and this group also plays a long free improvisation “Touch and Go”) but the way in which his music is all melody (it’s not for nothing that they conclude with a brief snippet of Bach’s “Two-Part Invention No. 13”). A welcome, and very beautiful, reissue.

Wiesendanger / Weber / Ulrich
We Concentrate

Hat’s preoccupation with performances – and reassessments – of “mainstream” music is an enduring one. We see this not only in their contemporary sponsorship of players like Marc Copland and Dave Liebman, but their long-standing supports of revisionists like Franz Koglmann. This sets the lovely piano trio We Concentrate (Hatology 626) in its proper context. The group consists of pianist Chris Wiesendanger, bassist Christian Weber, and drummer Dieter Ulrich. In little under an hour, they make mincemeat of silly kvetching about where to draw the line between “inside” and “out,” “avant” and “moldy fig.” Playing with an unabashed lyricism that is a kindred to the lofty Giuffre/Bley/Swallow trio (a connection underwritten by the inclusion of a bunch of Carla Bley and Annette Peacock tunes here), these players also possess advanced and edgy improvisational sensibilities. Its lyricism is tough and stripped-down, unsentimental even while melodic. But it also doesn’t drift towards the other easy path with repertory, that of mashing up the material rather than actually playing it. What this trio gives you, then, is a rich collective experience in various improvised musics that is used to get right inside the tunes, turning them inside out. They delineate a gorgeous “Jesus Maria,” they swing righteously on some Cole Porter and George Gershwin, and they make canny use of extended technique on Annette Peacock’s “Touching.” A fine record that will please disparate crowds.

Archives of the North

The (mostly) Austrian collective Polwechsel has been around for a long time now. Initially formed by bassist Werner Dafeldecker and cellist Michael Moser, the group has changed lineups a few times (and now they have shifted from the composition-oriented Hat Now imprint to the improv-focused Hatology). Initially comprising its co-founders, guitarist Burkhard Stangl and trombonist Radu Malfatti, for their second album, Polwechsel replaced Malfatti with tenor and soprano saxophonist John Butcher. This lineup remained in place for their third full-length (on Durian) and their Erstwhile collaboration with Fennesz. On Archives of the North (Hatology 633), Stangl has been replaced by drummer/percussionists Burkhard Beins and Martin Brandlmayr (the latter known by many for his sizzling work in Radian and Trapist). It’s quite a shift in terms of the immediate impression of these improvisations, although the group’s overall approach to the music remains consistent. They remain one of the most intriguing groups in post-AMM improvisation and this is a strong set. Occasionally an instrument is struck or a staccato note articulated, but for the most part things fade in and out on beds of vibrating cymbals, excited strings, and breath. Ghost sounds float, spirits seem to possess metal husks and long-dead machines, the inanimate comes alive. This feel is especially felt on the opening “Datum Cut” (which Dean Roberts, in his informative liners, likens to Alvin Lucier’s “I am Sitting in a Room”), which follows the long, slow resonations of a distant tolling bell. Even when the music is most voluble – as on Dafeldecker’s “Mirror,” where things are (relatively speaking of course) somewhat declamatory, or Moser’s percussive “Core Cuts” – it is always subtle, muted, restrained. But don’t catch yourself drifting away, because there is (on almost all of these tracks) an insistent low thrum that billows ominously. The title track – this disc’s only fully improvised piece – has a sinister feel to it as well, and I can’t help but hearing the entire disc as if it’s preoccupied with this sense of dread or foreboding (a lovely irony considering how light and fluid Polwechsel can be). This gives it a character that lingers long after the record is over, and which brings me back to it repeatedly.

Taking stock of this quartet of releases, it’s hard not to be impressed. Two reissues and two new ones, taking in a vast range of improvised music, it’s clear evidence that this fine label is as vigorous as ever. Now if only they would reissue the rest of that Joe McPhee and Steve Lacy material from the 1970s.

By Jason Bivins

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