Many jazz fans associate improvised music with the sort of chaotic, dense, howling stuff that characterized a fraction of the recordings issued by independent jazz labels of the late 60s and early 70's, such as Impulse, FMP, ESP, and BYG. The Ganelin Trio's music, while at times concentrated and intense in the manner of late 60s free music, also has passages that sound more like a Lithuanian folk tune, a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, a sci-fi film soundtrack, or an early 60s Blue Note record. This is some seriously diverse music! Not content to be merely eclectic, the Ganelin Trio's music has an inner logic and outer beauty that pulls the listener along - I was completely enthralled, waiting to see where they were going to go next.
The first of the CD's two long tracks, 'Conversation III', starts off with an absolutely ripping piano solo over a mist of phantasmagoric synthesized effects. Characteristically, Ganelin's piano improvisation is not merely outlandish or showy or purely chaotic - the image that kept coming to my mind was Andrew Hill improvising on a theme by Shostakovitch. Vysniauskas enters, sounding not unlike Wayne Shorter in his prime, and reels off an equally extraordinary soprano saxophone solo, backed by Ganelin's piano and synthesizer. As drummer Klaus Kugel starts to step into the action, the music takes off in all sorts of interesting and engaging territories. Kugel, like his predecessor Vladimir Tarasov, sticks to a standard drum kit, which he plays with unerring taste, sensitivity and swing. Even at the music's most intense peaks, Kugel maintains a sort of transparency of sound that permits these improvisations to retain a truly conversational character. His opening dialogue with Vysniauskas in 'Conversation IV' is completely stunning - here he almost sounds like two drummers.
Ganelin's use of synthesizers is quite original. Though somewhat restrained, they play an important role in the bass-less trio's music. Most often, they pop up in the background as a vaguely orchestral backdrop or scene-setting device. Ganelin also uses the synth to provide a brief melody or lead line, or a bass line behind a sax solo, or his own piano solo. Occasionally, he'll use the pre-programmed rhythms for humorous effects.
For all of the intense and heavy moments on "Live in Lugano", there are some truly poignant and ballad-like passages. The lengthy piano - saxophone duet that develops one third of the way into 'Conversations IV' is a case in point, though this too slowly builds and expands into something huge and cinematic before melting away into a Weather Report-like electro-jazz segment driven by a Ganelin's insistent walking bass line.
"Live In Lugano" is a fascinating listen - it's the sound of three master musicians interacting at the highest level for over an hour. They never run out of ideas or interesting things to say, and their music is completely free of bald spots and tired sounds. Best of all, the crystalline, detailed, and wonderfully dimensional live recording catches every nuance. Highly recommended.