Album review by Neil Hobkirk
Raised in a city readily stigmatized as an alternate take—an other London (Ontario), as opposed to the London (England)—I’m heartened to note the people and things that help my adopted hometown qualify as the Kingston. Alongside Sir John A. Macdonald and the non-trumpet-playing Don Cherry, my Kingston (Ontario) includes alto saxophonist Peter van Huffel among notable past and present citizens. Fellow native son Mike Allen has gone on to make waves on our west coast as a superb mainstream tenor saxophonist, and the versatile Jonathan “Bunny” Stewart continues making them locally on the same instrument. But Peter van Huffel, born and raised here, now resides very much there, based in Berlin after years spent refining his chops in New York City.
Courtesy of the Kingston Jazz Society, I’ve watched Van Huffel perform several times upon periodic returns from his adopted cosmopolitan centres. Those gigs corresponded to several different ensembles—the Peter van Huffel Quintet, PVH Quartet and the co-led HuffLiGNoN—and the saxophonist now juggles a number of projects in parallel. A comparatively straight-ahead strand in his career extends through three releases on Barcelona-based imprint Fresh Sound New Talent, which has been helping launch the careers of significant North American jazz artists since the mid ’90s. These are highly recommendable specimens of accessible yet adventurous mainstream jazz, intensely performed and well recorded. Alongside the latest of the three, a self-titled CD by cooperative trio Boom Crane (2014), two other releases have emerged: Bite My Blues by Peter van Huffel’s Gorilla Mask (Clean Feed, 2014), and Act One by House of Mirrors, a quartet co-led by Van Huffel and Belgian vocalist Sophie Tassignon (WismART, 2014). Radical departures in style from the Fresh Sound New Talent albums, these two discs diverge radically themselves. For now I’ll dwell on the first-mentioned.
At first blush, Gorilla Mask sounds like guys you’d hire to play your lease-breaking party. Or maybe three dudes making maximum noise while mom and dad are away on a dirty weekend, engaged in that arcane mating ritual with which Urban Dictionary identities the band’s name. But like the eponymous mask-making, and despite any semblance of juvenile delinquent hijinks, Gorilla Mask affords adult entertainment. Scandinavian jazz power trio The Thing perhaps stands closest as a point of comparison, right down to instrumentation—sax, bass, drums—and a thrash metal/punk approach to musical abandon. German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s smaller groups, including Last Exit, likewise carry out a veritable blitzkrieg to shock and awe listeners. And beyond jazz’s generic confines abound further analogues: Black Flag; The Stooges; metal bands of various stripes. But when Van Huffel and his henchmen put their (motör)heads together in the service of cacophony, they do leave room for light and shade: especially with repeated listening, Bite My Blues reveals a mature attentiveness to nuance that’s characteristic of skilled improvisers.
Don’t get me wrong: delicacy lies mostly outside Gorilla Mask’s feral remit. Rudi Fischerlehner shows a micromanager’s regard for detail, supplying constant percussive embellishment, but remains centrally committed to outright drum abuse. In so fusing ferocity with finesse, he impressively approaches the ideal best upheld by drummers Paal Nilssen-Love (The Thing) and Weasel Walter (The Flying Luttenbachers). Roland Fidezius is credited with “effects,” but that sideline in no way hides the bludgeoning attack to which he subjects his four-string. Sticking to electric on Bite My Blues, Fidezius produces a vehement grumble similar to Lemmy Kilmister’s and Chris Squire’s, without himself wielding their characteristic Rickenbacker. Regardless of make, the bass here sounds pugilistically forthright. Bandleader Peter Van Huffel similarly comes on like a raging bull, sometimes dealing tender feints but most often mangling reed and keys to massive effect, landing knockout blows that belie his preference for the modest-sized alto sax (recall Jake LaMotta’s small hands). His commanding sound and technique make our attentiveness non-negotiable.
Opener “Chained” and closer “Z” come carved from the same craggy rock face. Each marks its territory with a simple melodic statement elaborated repetitively (“Chained” sounds initially like Lemmy & co. starting up their staple “Bomber”). Then Fidezius’ grunge-summoning bass and Fischerlehner’s chattering kit lock together assertively while Van Huffel’s horn, in a desperate fireman’s carry, manhandles the theme up escalating levels of intensity.
Between these bookends of recalcitrant rock fall five pieces more porous, admitting greater variety of approach. “What?” showcases exuberant work behind the kit, Fishcherlehner’s labours eliciting a New Orleans second line. Through this danceable stratum, Van Huffel erupts like King Kong raining roars of uncaged fury upon an unsuspecting populace. Meanwhile in another part of this burning city, Fidezius’ axe anthropomorphizes into a querulous attention seeker, striving to distract attention from the boss’s gorilla tactics with an ostentatious wah-wah effect. A bit risibly resembling a jew’s harp, the dissenting voice vies for upper-hand status with Van Huffel’s, but PVH remains MVP by dint of sheer indispensible intensity: this man’s sax means serious business.
Third tune “Skunk” rhymes with “Monk” and starts out fulfilling the Thelonious quirk quota. The piece opens with a peremptory clarion call sounded repeatedly on sax and punctuated with playful percussion accents. But before long the trio goes Gorilla, masking any Monky business: the sax drops out and the bass guitar solos at length to skittering drum accompaniment. A couple of minutes in, Van Huffel reemerges raspily, gradually ratcheting up the intensity. Egged on by his cohorts, he eventually hits peak intensity and immediately retreats back to that quirky opening theme, repeatedly restating it to close the tune.
The remaining three pieces—“Bite My Blues,” “Broken Flower” and “Fast & Flurious [sic]”—are performed in a continuous flow, an approach familiar from the altoist’s other live recording On Common Ground (2005), self-released in bootleg quality by the Peter van Huffel Quintet. On the sonically far superior Bite My Blues the segues unite the pieces as three complementary movements that could just as well be titled, respectively, “Mired,” “Freed” and “On the Lam.” The title tune introduces the world’s dirtiest, sludgiest bass guitar riff, shortly kept company by Fischerlehner’s snare. Before long the boss steals in, offhandedly dispensing breathy flutters. As Fidezius’ bass sustains the dirgeful blues undertow, the sax grows declarative, then outright declamatory. Here Van Huffel mimes a beast mired in a tar pit, trying effortfully to free itself. The pain behind the effort comes across in the saxophonist’s tone, gorgeously hoarse even in the upper register. Behold a wail reminiscent of Albert Ayler’s: not a pretty sound, but wholly compelling—and heard at its haunted best six minutes in, where Van Huffel remonstrates in exposed fashion with minimal accompaniment.
The saxophone goes quiet at the ten-minute mark, where Roland Fidezius makes the remaining ninety seconds of “Bite My Blues” a platform for overt display, extending his technique with electronics. In full interstellar overdrive mode, his bass becomes a disembodied set of rubbed strings echoing atop Fischerlehner’s agitated snare. The resultant intertia floats the trio into “Broken Flower” where PVH reenters with disconsolate calm. Formerly excoriating, the saxophonist now plays plaintively but with a sense of growing elation. By the halfway point three minutes in, Van Huffel sounds positively triumphant and proceeds to wring the guts out of his horn in a show of hard-won freedom.
Catharsis permits closure, so the alto can now calmly note-worry its way into “Fast & Flurious.” At last sprung fully from that tar pit born of Fidezius’ murky exertions, our monster saxophonist once again finds his footing atop the tallest buildings. Now the rhythm section really can’t restrain him; this tune belongs to Van Huffel—who, incidentally, gets sole composer’s credit for all seven tracks. “Fast & Flurious” stages the spectacle of a sax on the run, an instrument committed to high-spirited delinquent excursions until finally running out of steam. The last forty-five seconds of the piece find bass and drums quietly tinkering amid cricket-like crowd noise.
Gorilla Mask’s other album Howl! (Between the Lines, 2012), on which only our closing tune “Z” appeared previously, was comparatively well groomed: no crowd noise there. Clinical recording quality reflected a refined studio environment, a bit incongruous given this band’s raw ferocity. As a live document, Bite My Blues probably provides a truer representation of the Gorilla Mask experience but should not off-put the audiophile. Expertly recorded and mixed by Patric McGroarty, the recording maintains a perfect balance between instruments, at the same time radiating the resonance of a communal event. As a listener, you can feel the on-site listeners close at hand, living and breathing the band’s music unobtrusively (audience noise is noticeable only during the quietest stretches). The fidelity of the stereo picture owes much to mono-handled Fedge, whose mastering expertise blessed recent releases from other cutting-edge Canadians like Lina Allemano Four, Peripheral Vision and Barry Romberg’s Random Access.
Bite My Blues deservedly appears on Lisbon-based label Clean Feed, among the most prestigious outlets for forward-thinking musical improvisers. Always expect from this source fine audio quality, innovative packaging and smart album art. On this release—Van Huffel’s second for Clean Feed following HuffLiGNoN—Gorilla Mask departs from the label’s usually refined album-cover graphics, filling the frame with untamed collective identity. See below!
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