Niklas Barnö, Joel Grip & Didier Lasserre - Can't Stop Snusing

Ken Waxman, JazzWord

Didier Lasserre/Joel Grip/Niklas Barnö - Can't Stop Snusing (Ayler AYLCD-126)

Rougier/Dubois/Lasserre - Entendus avec l'âme (Petit label pl free 005)

Recorded four months apart with exactly the same instrumentation and sharing Didier Lasserre, one of France’s most accomplished percussionists, these trio sessions demonstrate that there are many approaches to free improv are there are musicians. However as a regularly constituted group, Snus, which links Bordeaux-based Lasserre with two Scandinavians, demonstrates on Can't Stop Snusing more exploratory interface and timbral revelations than the sounds created on Entendus avec l'âme, which pairs the drummer with local associates.

Curiously as well, although titles for the three tracks on Entendus avec l'âme – A Draft of Shadows in English – are borrowed from the final poetry collection of Mexican anti-totalitarian writer Octavio Paz, and to add to its individuality Lasserre plays only snare and cymbal, the brief performances are frustratingly restrained compared to the work on the other CD. Perhaps it’s because the drummer, trumpeter Thomas Dubois and bassist Jean Rougier haven’t yet gelled a group identity, even though Rougier is part of another trio with the same drummer and saxophonist Sylvain Guérineau.

On the other hand, Stockholm-based trumpeter Niklas Barnö and bassist Joel Grip of Paris, work together regularly in the brass man’s Je Suis band and in other groups featuring the likes of saxophonist Roland Keijser and drummer, Raymond Strid. As for Lasserre, he faces any challenge. In the past he has no trouble holding his own with Continental heavy hitters such as French baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro and British bassist Paul Rogers.

Can't Stop Snusing is this trio’s second CD in this formation and each instant composition is designed to take advantage of the band members’ skills and versatility. Barnö’s usual tone rests somewhere between a growl and a whinny, reminiscent of the two Dons – Cherry and Ayler – but he’s also capable of vibrant open-horned work or expelling weighty POMO pressures by seemingly vibrating his bell against a solid metal sheet as he blows. In the same way Grip, who usually moves between percussive thumps and subtle string rubbing replicates the powerful groove of a Paul Chambers or Ray Brown in his introduction to “Awakening”.

That concluding track is practically a digest of everything Snus exhibits throughout the remainder of the CD. As Lasserre keeps the movement going with cross-handed bangs and ruffs, Grip’s sluicing bass line seems to split in two, showcasing high pitched string sawing in some instances or balanced plucks in others. His spiccato, elongated sprawls also serve as counterpoint to Barnö’s textures. These range from high-pitched flutter tonguing paralleled by drum rat-tat-tats to prickly smears and whinnies mated with throat-clenching fervor.

“Deciding” is the other stand-out track, where Barnö’s vocalized trumpet textures come into greater focus with an equal number of bitten-off notes and grace-note slurs. Ranging between tongue stops and mercurial triplet explorations, the trumpet lines become narrower, squeakier and more atonal as the piece progresses. Culminating in segmented growls, the brass work is part of a three-way dialogue, with the drummer popping and rolling and the bassist plucking steadily southwards and as his lines become more animated, encouraging a quicker pace with double stopping.

If only the other CD throbbed with the same level of exhilaration. The signs of disconnect are apparent as early as the first track when it isn’t exactly clear whether the introductory pop and slap arise from Rougier’s bass or Lasserre’s snare drum. What is plain however, at least in this instance, is that Dubois is a much more conventional trumpeter than Barnö, with his often muted variations centred on flutter tonguing and traditional tone clusters. His solos tend to be cheery and linear with even the elevated notes somewhat subdued. This passiveness means that Rougier almost tales over the session, unbalancing one side of what should be triangle contributions with swiveling see-saw pressure and methodical double stopping.

Still working on a Dizzy Gillespie-Clifford Brown-like axis, the trumpeter seems to assert himself more on the final track with a cornucopia of open-horn blowing. Yet even here the multiphonic cadenzas and buzzes seem to depend on Rougier’s muscular slaps to keep the action chromatic. As Dubois works his way down the scale with near-transparent purring, it’s the drummer’s lug loosening, cymbal shaking and hand rolling which maintains the equilibrium, along with the bassist’s below the bridge quivers.

Entendus avec l'âme is additionally notable for being recorded in front of the politest, most attentive audience extant – they don’t even talk during bass solos – and its applause probably reflects the excitement of the live moment. But sadly on record that trio’s performance lacks the satisfying vibrancy displayed at the concert which is captured on Can't Stop Snusing. The saving grace and hope is that when Dubois, Rougier and Lasserre also produce their second disc, after more time together, its quality will likely be as exceptional as the Snus set.