Vlatko Kucan Quartet

Live at Palo-Palo
True Muze / TUMUCD9803

Vlatko Kucan / reeds, Tomasz Stanko / trumpet, Michael Danner / trombone, tuba, Jay Oliver / bass, Bill Elgart / drums

Although the names may not be familiar — with the exception of guest Stanko — this is something of an all-star lineup. The list of American and European free jazz “names” these musicians have worked with is exhausting to read and would be futile to reproduce or hint at. The implication that these are going to be high-quality players with a solid jazz grounding is there from the start.

Victor Kucan admits to being a kind of conservative. He rejects out of hand both neo-bop and a certain “postmodern, conceptual approach” which he finds in the avant garde. On tenor, he often sounds like Lester Young, which is disconcerting to say the least; his sporano is extremely nasal, but the notes he plays are straight out of Bird. It’s true that he does also step into stormier waters at times, but their function is always ornamental, never structural. The more difficult moments — to whit, his solo on “Paris Blues” — soon settle into a blustery but precise style something like Archie Shepp’s update of Coleman Hawkins. It’s an effective solo, with all the pace and unexpectedness of a vintage Steve Lacy, and for the most part the extended techniques are well integrated into Kucan’s general updated swing-to-bop aesthetic.

All this might leave you feeling that Michael Danner is the last person Kucan would call then putting a quartet together> Danner barks and brays with his horn, reminiscent of both Paul Rutherford and George Adams. Make no mistake, Danner really has his boots on for this session, and he plays like he’s dancing on a hot-plate, but these two voices really shouldn’t work together. They do, not because they have a lot in common, but because they compliment one another so neatly; if Kucan is fundamentally a jazzer with an occasional taste for the leftfield, Danner sounds like a tailgate noise-merchant with a bucket of low-down-dirty sounds who, every now and then, remembers to dredge up a little bebop from the murky soup he loves to swim in.

The rhythm secxtion doesn’t really address this dynamic much. Although both Elgart and Oliver, to whom this release is dedicated in memoriam, are very fine hard bop players, they rarely step outside that genre. Still, ELgart has a far lighter touch than most, and Oliver’s liking for funky riffing is distinctive enough to give the group some extra colour. The compositions, with the exception of “Tuba Tune”, could have stepped straight out of a 1950s Blue Note session, so it’s nice that the bass and drums fit with that ethos so well even while the soloists take things outside. Oliver also deserves honourable mention for his five-minute solo intro to “Round Midnight”, a pensive, bowed piece which he paces and shapes masterfully on the disc’s only standard.

The presence of Stanko is also welcome, of course, as his freewheeling trumpet can cover all of the bases frequented by Kucan and Danner, in a sense unifying the music even further. His solo on the opening “Dance of the Robot People” is superheated and infuriatingly surprising at every turn, full of those brassy, loudmouthed blues which can only emerge from the bell of a trumpet. Richard Cochrane