Mars Williams - sopranino, soprano, alto & tenor saxophones, flutes, kalimba
Wacław Zimpel - alto & Bb clarinet, algoza, overtone flutes
Hilliard Greene - double bass
Klaus Kugel - drums, percussion
By Martin Schray
Dedicated followers of our website know that we love the works of Polish clarinetist Wacław Zimpel, no matter if he plays with his quartet, Hera, Undivided or Ircha, a clarinet project led by Mikołaj Trzaska (to name just a few). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see him live, until I found out that he was playing with his band Switchback at Dachau’s Kulturschranne, home of the busy local jazz club.
And what a marvelous show it was! Switchback is Zimpel (alto, b-clarinets, algoza, flutes), Mars Williams (tenor, alto, soprano, sopranino saxophones, little instruments), Hilliard Greene (double bass) and Klaus Kugel (drums, percussion) and their performance was like opening up a diverse musical landscape. On the one hand there were Mars Williams’ brutal outbreaks, on the other hand Waclaw Zimpel’s dark clarinet meditations and Klaus Kugel’s zen-like cymbals and chimes. And the glue that holds everything together was Hilliard Greene’s pulse. Especially the second set was mind-blowing. Apart from the brilliant improvised jazz excursions there was a long passage when Williams used the kalimba and Kugel added tiny bells, clips and gongs, while Zimpel set a counterpoint with wooden flutes and a small, portable harmonium. It was a deep dive into jazz’s folkloristic aesthetics, into world music and into good old Chicago free jazz.
Switchback have developed in the last two years, so their CD – a live recording of a 2013 performance – is a bit different from the concert. The first track, "Four Are One", is a programmatic title since these very different musicians all contribute to an overall sound. The music is a wild mixture of blues and urban free Jazz (Williams), Klezmer and modern classical music (Zimpel), spirituals and traditional grooves (Greene) and somber and liberated beats (Kugel, whose style differed the most compared to the concert). It’s an emotional up and down of wild battles between the saxophones and the clarinets, juxtaposed by lots of meditative and quiet moments. The reeds’ hymn-like moments, the harmony of their interplay, is replaced by different complicated layers, by wild, eruptive, overblown segments that cut like a knife. It’s a feverish ride with lots of twists and turns in which Klaus Kugel’s percussion sets the bright points of rest that set a counterpoint to the intensity of the reeds.
But the real sensation of this quartet is bassist Hilliard Greene, a man whose style is deeply rooted in African music. He is an energetic player who slabs the corpus of his bass, but also caresses the instrument with his bow. He seems to merge with it, and pushes his fellow musicians to unknown realms (especially in the title track where he has a long solo). In a nutshell: Switchback’s debut is an excellent piece of work, a must have for classic free jazz fans.