John Sharpe, All about Jazz
German reedman Stefan Keune has shown a strong affinity for British improv since making a connection with drummer Paul Lytton in 1990. Since then his discography records a number of dates with guitarist John Russell, including appearances at London’s now dormant Freedom of the City festival. This limited edition LP, recorded at Russell’s Mopomoso gathering at the Vortex in September 2013, suggests he’s found a potent new outlet in the company of mainstays of two different generations of British improvisers in bassist Dominic Lash (best known for his work with clarinetist/guitarist Alex Ward and the Convergence Quartet,) and drummer Steve Noble (one of the more rhythmic free drummers on the scene, getting wider exposure with Peter Brötzmann and Ikue Mori).
The opener sets the template, with Noble and Lash acting as a rhythm section, albeit one that severely tests the definition of that term, while Keune provides the narrative voice, albeit with a tale that defies easy understanding. Noble and Lash create a latticework of arco slashes, resonant plucks cymbal strikes and tight rolls, against which Keune mutters, yelps and splutters with quiet but unremitting intensity. In fact Keune barely emits a standard pitch on the entire LP. At times on „Two Far“ and „Mélange“ his stream of choked utterances recall Evan Parker. However his favored gambit is exploration of overblown squeals on both sopranino and tenor saxophones.
Several of the cuts follow similar trajectories from slow/quiet to fast/loud, in a tightly focused soundworld. Variation comes in the form of checks to the build up on „Cuts“ until ultimately regular pulses of activity become so close they represent mere oscillations in the flow, and the increased spaciousness and silences of „Let’s Not.“ But it’s the final „Mélange“ which most stretches the parameters, full as it is of choppy interplay with Keune adding gruff edges to his falsetto discourse. The dense fizzing interaction gradually works towards a roiling crescendo. It’s difficult to maintain such a head of steam, but it’s a trick they pull off for all but the last 90 seconds, which is given over to inspired pizzicato and cymbal coloration.
Martin Schray, www.freejazzblog.org
Undeservedly, Stefan Keune is one of the most underrepresented musicians in the free music world. This surely has to do with his slender body of work (he was born in 1965 and has released only eight albums as a member of smaller ensembles), but then again he has recorded for FMP (one of the labels last recordings, No Comment) and he has worked with outstanding colleagues like John Russell (in an excellent duo), Mats Gustafsson, Paul Lytton as well as Peter Kowald. However, as a stylist he is simply great. His choice of the sopranino saxophone as main instrument gives him an uncommon sound, which he pairs with a textural approach which is why critics often compare him with Evan Parker and John Butcher, yet his squeezed sound is really distinctive. Even when he plays the baritone sax he makes it sound like an alto.
On Fractions, his new album with British improvisers Dominic Lash (b) and Steve Noble (dr), this high-pitched, squeaking sound collides with Lash’s and Noble’s dark and menacing structures which remind of an approaching thunderstorm (“Two Far“). The music is raw, direct, unvarnished and reduced to what is absolutely necessary. Lash and Noble are not there to push the saxophon to the front or to support it so that it can soar, that’s not the way this trio works. It’s more like the shuffle offense in basketball, an offensive strategy which has all the players rotate in each of the positions. Compared to the trio formation here it is a constellation which offers a maximum of possibilties to interact and where nobody can hide behind the other.
On the one hand Keune, Lash and Noble systematically comb through microcosms of sound fields but on the other hand they are also ready to explode (“A Find“) which prevents the music from dragging on – rhythmic energy and the exploration of carefully defined soundscapes co-exist fruitfully. This is a strict procedure which allows dynamic freedom and therefore almost classic free jazz moments – something like that can only be achieved if the musicians trust each other completely, if they know each other well. “Let’s Not“, the 13-minute central piece of the album, might be the best example for this: starting off with reluctant single notes thrown in, it soon develops to controlled mayhem based on very tight interplay, which is constantly fueled and powered by Noble’s extended materials, Lash’s deep mumbling notes and Keune hysterical, driving alto.
In his liner notes to No Comment the German critic Felix Klopotek claimed that the trio might be the formation in free music in which you can realize an egalitarian idea best, since it was very open and transparent. You can say this about Fractions as well. In spite of its discipline and strength the music is free of conventions, that’s what makes it so extraordinary.
Fractions is another example that NoBusiness has become a seal of quality for saxophone trios.
Ken Waxman, www.jazzword.com
Trying to ascribe geographical characteristics to improvisers is usually as bogus as analysing the behavior or scientists or sports figures via their national origin. Like all concepts built on platitudes there’s some truth in the stereotypes of course, but the reverse can be just as legitimate. All this is a roundabout way to note that Fractions takes no quarter. It’s a high energy, live, five-track wedge of unbridled improvisation. It’s the sort of sounds identified by supporters and denigrators of Energy Music, with its avatars American figures such as Charles Gayle and Albert Ayler or German such Peter Brötzmann.
There are no Yank is attendance and the only German featured is alto saxophonist Stefan Keune. However he’s usually found in more restrained and cerebral circumstances with partners like British guitarist John Russell. In Free Music, Brits are supposed to be e preoccupied with small gestures and dwindling sounds. But it appears the London-based part of the trio didn’t get that memo. Bassist Dominic Lash works with a variety of players both in the United Kingdom and overseas, while drummer Steve Noble appears to have played with nearly everyone in the Jazz-Improv circuit including heavy blowers like Brötzmann.
Although figuring out who stepped out of his accustomed role to inspire the other trio members is probably a classic chicken-and-egg situation, what relay matters is the end product. Although never recorded together before Keune-Lash-Noble connect like a lock and key, start playing in full, screaming Free Jazz mold and don’t let up for 45 minutes. Along the way there are several stand-out moments. There’s Lash’s thick string stropping on “Cuts” which work up to double stopped squeezes; and his antithetical approach on “A Find” where he finds several vocalized textures, scrapping them out with a bow from positions above and below the bridge. Plus there’s Noble’s pacing throughout. Sourcing textures as common as drum rolls and cymbal clang, and as startling as those which appear to emanate from balloons, scrapers, maracas, nutcrackers, gongs and bells, he somehow manages to back-up the other two, yet pump out rhythms in double counterpoint that if isolated would be solos in themselves.
Squeaking, peeping and grunting, Keune unbridled emotionalism rife with irregular vibrations takes in split tones, triple tonguing and reed bites. Yet he’s playing includes with an analytical thesis, which could probably be attributed to his Teutonic background. By “Mélange”, the final track, his output has gone past glossolalia to approach the spirit-feel of religious speaking in tongues, an attribute of Pentecostal American not Lutheran-Catholic churches.
Whether it’s British reserve or Germanic toughness that created it, this miasma of passionate expression reaches a crescendo of sensational intensity in that final track’s last few minutes. Subsequently, and almost nonchalantly, the three wrap things up as if turning off the engine of a sports car that has been racing at 160 rpm minutes previously.
Perhaps the cliché needed here is one that explains this unanimity of musical purpose. At any rate these Fractions add up to the proper result.
Stewart Smith, The Quietus
German saxophonist Stefan Keune has a strong affinity for British improvisers, having worked with the likes of Roger Turner, John Russell and John Butcher. This set, recorded at London’s Vortex Jazz Club in November 2013, teams him up with two of Britain’s finest rhythm players, drummer Steve Noble and the young bassist Dominic Lash. With as energetic a player as Noble behind the kit, it doesn’t take long for opening track ‘Two Far’ to get going. Keune writhes around the upper register of his tenor, like a bird thrashing its way out of an oil slick, while Noble plants whipcrack snare rolls and tom detonations under Lash’s creaking bass. Noble’s drumming is robust, but textural, leaving plenty of space for Keune and Lash to roam freely. There’s some righteous fiery multiphonics, but some of the most effective passages are where Keune explores the altissimo range of his tenor and sopranino horns, conjuring a swarm of twittering blackbirds and demented starlings, while Lash’s bass lurches between grainy harmonics and dolorous plucks. Fractions is among the best of No Business’s summer batch (…).