Thirty-three year-old Switzerland native and saxophonist Reto Suhner has spent time as a student of New York-based jazz artists like Dick Oatts, Billy Drewes and Rich Perry. Suhner has performed with the Zurich Jazz Orchestra, Herbie Kopfs U.F.O., the Adrian Frey Septet, forward-thinking jazz trumpeter Markus Stockhausen and the Swiss Jazz Orchestra, among others. Suhner’s quartet includes Bombay-born and originally classically-trained pianist Lester Mendez. A graduate of the Trinity College of Music in London and the Berklee College of Music in Boston, he currently teaches jazz at the Music Academy in Basel. Bassist Fabian Gisler studied at the Jazz Swiss in Bern and has performed with jazz luminaries including with Kurt Rosenwinkel, Garry Smulyan and Philip Catherine. Zurich-born drummer Dominik Burkhalter studied at the Jazz School in Lucerne and has performed with Billy Cobham, Christy Doran’s New Bag and Dana Briant, among others.
While young jazz musicians in the United States spend an inordinate amount of time involved in learning jazz patterns and prescribed methods of soloing, many of the truly creative and communicative musicians, the essence of what jazz should be, are today coming from Europe. Their love of the spirit of ensemble interplay, as perhaps best defined in the work of saxophonist Evan Parker, can be found thriving in Suhner’s ensemble. The best way to describe this group is to think of them as four musicians who are all highly involved and intrinsically motivated to create music that moves of its own and by its own standards. The result is music that is truly both free and linked to the chordal harmonic tradition of artists like Bird, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. Their shared single minded "group think" concept plays out brilliantly throughout the concert.
This live recording, from a 2008 concert in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, opens with one of Suhner’s compositions, "Roon/Schhaene Ih Heltall." Throughout the almost 17 minute presentation tempos fluctuate, rhythmic motives wave and rebound around the group, each member takes their own turn in lead, and accompaniment roles shift colors and dance with subtle joy. After a hauntingly beautiful piano introduction by Menezes the ensemble enters with a minimalistic repeated note foray that slowly morphs into a style reminiscent of Eric Dolphy’s early ballad work. Suhner’s sax not only imparts a stark and open landscape, but also touches on a few extended saxophone techniques that brilliantly balance the starkness of the ensemble’s opening passage. From there on each member adds to the fire their own reflexive motivic touches picked up through group interplay. Dynamic extremes are both gradually arrived at and dispersed, with lightness of being the central focus.
"The Fourth Uneasy Piece," a Lester Menezes composition, opens similarly but this time with an unaccompanied bass solo. So delicate is Menezes’ touch you almost don’t notice he’s entered the piece’s space until well into Suhner’s freely slow cadenza that is so captivatingly accompanied by both Menezes and Gisler one cannot truly index where one musician begins and another ends. Freely and eventually, upon the entrance of Burkhalter, the ensemble turns their sound around and Menezes becomes the dominant voice with the other musicians following his lead. The intricateness and swift beauty of this ensemble’s timbral palette, along with their ablility to change the direction of their compositions and free-jazz mind speak on a dime, is almost beyond belief.
The rest of the recording is similarly brilliant, stunning and yet understated and unobtrusive all at once; the band even takes a turn melding Monk’s and Steve Lacy’s world in Menezes’ composition "CS." Would that more American musicians focused on line, texture and shades of musical dialogue like these four, jazz might have a more vaulted position in American culture.