Michael RABINOWITZ: Uncharted Waters – Cats Paws Records

by | Apr 24, 2017 | Jazz CD Reviews

Michael Rabinowitz again showcases the virtuosity of the bassoon in a warm acoustic setting.

Michael RABINOWITZ: Uncharted Waters – Cats Paws Records 9855, 56:50 (4/22/17) ****:

(Michael Rabinowitz: bassoon/ Ruslan Khain: bass/ Nat Harris: guitar/ Vince Ector: drums)

The first time I heard the sound of the bassoon I didn’t whether to laugh or cry. I was astonished at the vibratory power of the lower range and its effect on one’s inner organs. The tenor range likewise possesses magical qualities, from stately to charmingly eccentric. There is no doubt that the instrument brims with character, and yet it has stood outside the jazz world, owing no doubt to the obstacles of the double-reed mechanics, which don’t allow for the all important vocal inflections and special effects so prominent in jazz. This is also true for the other members of the double-reed family, the oboe and English horn; they have all been left behind by that great innovation of Adolphe Sax, who solved problems of air flow and tonal flexibility in one fell swoop, thus paving the way for the saxophone to achieve its prominent position in jazz history.

In the newly released Uncharted Waters, Michael Rabinowitz’ fourth outing as a leader in over a decade, he again persuasively makes the case for the bassoon in jazz.  The first part of the argument involves showing how well the instrument blends with the bass, and in this case, the very acoustic-sounding hollow body jazz guitar. This is an unqualified success, blending a trio of natural wood sonorities most pleasingly. The playing of bassist Ruslan Khain is very fine throughout, with an intonation that suggest conservatory preparation. Somehow his very big tone accommodates rather than overwhelms the bassoon. The guitarist, Nat Harris, has a sure sense of time and fluency within the modern jazz idiom. Drummer Vince Ector shows off tasty chops on the Jobim tune and stars on the calypso, but otherwise modestly recedes to a supporting role.

The more difficult task Mr. Rabinowitz sets for himself is to demonstrate that the double-reed red monster can negotiate the technical challenges and expressive dimensions of modern jazz on a collection of charts ranging from bebop, blues, and calypso, including three originals. This is mostly successful although there are moments when one senses a feeling of confinement and striving, especially when the bassoon worries the upper register, sounding like a sax with laryngitis.  On “Harold’s Blues”, guitar and bassoon are in perfect sync on a swinging blues line that shows off the burr of the bottom register. Even baritone sax players will be deeply impressed by the authoritative growl of this instrument.

The best moments of all happen the bassoon steps out by itself on the long and elegant solo introductions to several of the pieces, most notably on Art Farmer’s “The Third” and “How Insensitive”. Freshness and discovery prevail, energizing the ensemble in these numbers. The elusive delicacy and wafting breezes of the Jobim tune are fully realized. The tunes “So Do It” and “Caravan” are confident in reach and grasp without asserting all that much, but they do, occasioning that impossible thing, bent notes on the bassoon. A high point is reached at the end of “When Sonny Gets Blue”, with an improvised cadenza, mingling contortionist virtuosity with some farcical effects. Fans should be on their feet by the end.  A final “Calypso” is mostly a chance for the drummer to shine. By now, we are convinced that the bassoon is a very worthy jazz instrument and comparisons are beside the point. Many listeners will have become curious about the recorded work of the guitarist, which should also be worth investigating.

Rabinowitz is a fine improviser and band leader.  Anyone who cares about this instrument and the fruitful edges of modern jazz exploration will want to pick up this fine CD.

TrackList: Uncharted Waters; Harold’s Blues; Caravan; Kiki’s Theme; So Do It; How Insensitive; The Third; When Sonny Gets Blue; Calypso Joe.

—Fritz Balwit

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