Fred Longberg-Holm/Glenn Kotche/Jason Robke CD review [Atavistic]

Music Reviews
Fred Longberg-Holm/Glenn Kotche/Jason Robke CD review [Atavistic]
Nov 5, 2002, 23:22


When you stop to think about it, it's actually quite perplexing that an instrument with the lengthy lineage of the cello hasn't made much of a splash in jazz music. True, there have been several bassists, such as Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford, and Ron Carter, who have doubled and dabbled on the instrument. And there are plenty of instances where classical players were hired, as members of faceless string sections, to provide a backdrop. But there really wasn't anyone who picked up the cello and boldly resolved to make it a jazz instrument, in the way that, say, Larry Adler or Toots Theilmans did for the harmonica. Until Fred Katz, that is.

Katz, first a pianist, began his cello studies in the early 1950s, with the man known far and wide as the greatest cellist of the 20th Century: the legendary Pablo Casals. In the middle of the decade, he joined drummer Chico Hamilton's Quintet at the height of its West Coast cool-ness, and played alongside budding firebrand Eric Dolphy and esteemed guitarist Jim Hall. From there, he cut some audacious, visionary albums for Decca and World Pacific that truly redefined the instrument (see Decca's Soul O Cello), arranged for Carmen McRae, and collaborated with Ken Nordine on the two Word Jazz LPs that are now such widely-sought, oddball collector's items. At the age of 83, Fred Katz is still very much with us and continues to write music.

Yet despite all of Katz's trailblazing efforts, the dilemma remains; the cello is still the underdog of the jazz arsenal. But, thanks to the sublime craft of his supremely capable successor, fellow Chicagoan Fred Lonberg-Holm, the instrument is in good hands. Lonberg-Holm, who is also a talented sculptor (the excellent stained glass pieces on the cover are his), has studied with both Morton Feldman and Anthony Braxton, in addition to working with Peter Brötzman's Chicago Tentet, God Is My Co-Pilot, Ken Vandermark, John Zorn, and his own band, Terminal 4. Together with drummer Glenn Kotche and bassist Jason Roebke, Lonberg-Holm has created a set that is certainly the desired, proudly loving tribute it was intended to be, but also retains the unrivaled, highly-personalized imprint of this fine trio.

And what a gorgeous imprint it is. Made up of material written and inspired by Katz, as well as tunes associated with him, A Valentine for Fred Katz is a masterpiece that exists as a collection of moments of bittersweet starkness and playful agility. Haunting, heartbreaking readings of standards like “Autumn Leaves” and “My Funny Valentine” or Katz's own “The Sage” resound with the somber, Expressionistic beauty of an Alfred Stieglitz photo, while animated gems like “Pluck It” or the Jim Hall-penned “I Know” swing with the errant vengeance of a runaway pendulum. Tellingly, the sole Lonberg-Holm composition, “Mystery Kat,” deftly straddles both ends of the dynamic/mood spectrum.

An encounter with a work of such deeply rewarding riches as this is one of those all-too-rare moments. And it will leave any lover of timeless, affecting music at a true loss for the words to convey its greatness. As a writer for this magazine, it is the best release by contemporary artists that I have yet had the pleasure of hearing, this or any other issue—by a lot.

Trust me, you need to make room for this album much more than whatever else I've raved about. Besides—there's always room for cello. [Atavistic]

-Peter Aaron

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