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JAZZ | ALBUM SPOTLIGHT

*** 1/2, PETER WENIGER, "TipTap," Mons Records; ***, RENAUD GARCIA-FONS, "Alborea,"Enja Records

July 21, 1996|Don Heckman

The names may be unfamiliar, but there's nothing obscure about the music here, which is crisp, adventurous modern jazz. The playing of Weniger, a German tenor saxophonist, and Garcia-Fons, a French bassist, epitomizes the high-quality, creative improvisational music being produced outside the United States.

Why is Europe beginning to yield so many adventurous, envelope-stretching jazz outings? In part, perhaps, because the Continent's exposure to centuries of changing classical music styles tends to make audiences more receptive to the kinds of readapting and rearranging of traditional jazz forms practiced by innovative European jazz players. As the elements of jazz have spread around the world, artists such as Weniger and Garcia-Fons have emerged, unaffected by the need to shape their music to an American model, confidently following musical paths that are uniquely their own. Mons and Enja, small, German labels, have been--along with Italy's Black Saint/Soul Note and long-established ECM Records--important channels for the emergence of new, independent European jazz voices.

The first thing that comes to mind after hearing a few tracks from Weniger's album is the radical realization that it is eminently listenable--radical because so many jazz releases these days seem to fall into the category of mind-numbing superficiality (read: most easy-listening new adult contemporary-type jazz) or the more musically appealing but emotionally off-putting category of hyper virtuosic self-expression.

Weniger, almost completely unknown in this country, has a rare knack for performing jazz that manages to catch the ear and intrigue the mind while keeping the feet tapping. One hears touches of Joe Henderson in some of his hard-driving choruses ("Monx-'A' Train" and the title track are good examples) and of the underappreciated tenor player Warne Marsh in his sliding, across-the-bar-line rhythmic phrasing. His delightful sense of humor emerges musically in a lighthearted rendering of "You Can Fly" (from "Dumbo") and the funk-driven "The Nail." And his ballad readings are superb, notably a brief but telling version of "More Than You Know," in which Weniger plays an improvised solo first, allowing it to gradually lead to a concluding melodic statement, a moody "I Have a Love" (from "West Side Story") and pianist Hubert Nuss' lyrical original "Remembering."

Weniger is served brilliantly by the American rhythm team of Dennis Irwin on bass and Carl Allen on drums. But the core of the album is his symbiotic connection with pianist Nuss--his equal as an improvising jazz player and a vital contributor to this superb album.

The Garcia-Fons recording moves in a far different direction. Garcia-Fons is a bassist with astonishing technique, especially with his bowed playing, in which he articulates melodies and produces timbres with quality more reminiscent of the viola or the cello than a five-string contrabass.

His ensemble includes the unlikely combination of accordion, drums and another bass, performing selections resonant with sounds ranging from gypsy gatherings and late-night cabarets to contemporary classical concerts and straight-ahead jazz. Some of Garcia-Fons' 11 original works, in fact, would test anyone's definition of jazz. Others surge forward with the kind of improvisational spontaneity and rhythmic swing that can only be produced by jazz players. And that's the real point with this unusual but eminently attractive take on jazz--that the essential reality of jazz is wide and inclusive enough to embrace the most unexpected forms of improvisational expression.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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