Isabelle Duthoit & Franz Hautzinger and local trio ZRL present new strains of free improvisation

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Franz Hautzinger and Isabelle Duthoit - COURTESY OF THE ARTISTS
  • Courtesy of the artists
  • Franz Hautzinger and Isabelle Duthoit

Chicago offers no shortage of opportunities to see freely improvised music any day of the week, but in the coming days two shows stand out for me. One features European musicians who don't get here very often, and the other is by three Chicagoans who play in different contexts all the time. Both are exciting in different ways.

This evening French clarinetist and vocalist Isabelle Duthoit and Austrian trumpeter Franz Hautzinger complete a Chicago visit (they played Thursday at Elastic) with a trio concert at Experimental Sound Studio that includes Chicago percussionist Michael Zerang. On the bracing new Lily (Relative Pitch), Duthoit and Hautzinger traffic in small, sibilant sounds, their instruments often serving as resonators for little more than columns of unpitched breath—they're less likely to produce familiar notes than they are flurries of air. Hautzinger is among the pioneers of this approach for trumpet, largely concurrent with the innovations of Germany's Axel Dörner, but while Dörner also plays his own brand of free bop, Hautzinger is something of a purist, sticking to heady, abstract sounds. In recent years his duo with Duthoit, who uses her clarinet in similar fashion, has been his main vehicle.

Together they create music of searing intensity. Duthoit's wordless vocals sometimes feel like creepy animal noises—she mixes piercing cries, guttural groans, vocal fry, and more, every sound bubbling out of her with tactile physicality. Hautzinger has such expert control of the trumpet's valves that the spit-flecked breaths he forces through its tubing often emerge as a simpatico match for Duthoit's extremes. On the track "Zefir," Duthoit produces recognizable clarinet tones, alternating a series of quiet flutters on the horn with waves of choked, gasping vocal utterances in such a way that it's often hard to tell when she's switched. Below you can check out one of the album's most extroverted pieces, "Un Serpent Dans la Nuit."


ZRL: Lia Kohl, Ryan Packard, Zachary Good - DEIDRE HUCKABAY
  • Deidre Huckabay
  • ZRL: Lia Kohl, Ryan Packard, Zachary Good

Young local trio ZRL, which celebrates the release of an impressive self-titled cassette on the No Index label with a performance Sunday night at the Hungry Brain, consists of players better known through their associations with new-music ensembles such as Mocrep and Fonema Consort. Be that as it may, cellist Lia Kohl, percussionist Ryan Packard, and clarinetist Zachary Good belong to a new strain of Chicago musicians who operate so authoritatively in disparate settings that it's difficult to describe them in terms of genre—they're interested in exploration, wherever it may take them.

Everything on the tape is not only improvised but also exquisitely considered. The opening track, "1", which you can hear below, blends meditative vibraphone, viscous and serene bowed cello, and tightly coiled clarinet that's sometimes fluid and sometimes strident (the latter helped along by Good's use of deliberate squeaks). It's a cliche to praise a fully improvised performance by insisting it sounds like a composition, but that's exactly the case here—on "1" ZRL create a gorgeously intimate atmosphere whose pleasing melodic shimmers only occasionally erupt into dissonance.
The rest of the album by and large maintains a concentrated intensity without using much harshness or loudness. ZRL excel at the nexus of friction and stasis—rubbing or bowing instruments to generate sounds that float or writhe, while one or two players add lyrical overtones with taut, terse phrases that soothe the tension. The track "3" opens with an exciting series of long tones on cello and clarinet, charged by sine-wave keening from Packard (he occasionally adds electronics), and then Kohl digs in with her bow to play violently scraped lines that suggest a bronco trying to throw its rider. The piece feels wonderfully episodic, even though it emerged spontaneously. This trio don't perform live very often, but I certainly wouldn't take them for granted if they did—local listeners deserve more opportunities to hear what they're capable of.

Today's playlist:

Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson, Crop Circles (Relative Pitch)
Arditti Quartet, Hilda Paredes: Cuerdas del Destino (Aeon)
Noah Kaplan Quartet, Cluster Swerve (Hatology)
Sunny Murray, Big Chief (Eremite)
High Llamas, Here Come the Rattling Trees (Drag City)

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