Something Different: Tom Varner – “The Swiss Duos”


Tom Varner - "The Swiss Duos"Enjoying one of those mornings when I just follow random leads across the internet, moving from one artist and one album to the next, I stumbled across The Swiss Duos, the 2000 release of French horn player Tom Varner.  On it, he collaborates with four different pianists in duo performances:  George Gruntz, Gabriela Friedli, Christoph Baumann, and Hans Feigenwinter.  The album consists of twenty-four tracks, but with most lasting no more than a minute or two.  And while the duration of the pieces may suggest mere interludes, the actuality of these tunes is simply that they are brief expressions that reach their fullness in a very short time.  There is something very refreshing about that.  The music is direct and to the point, and when a song does extend out a bit (as a few do), it’s not done unnecessarily and only until the particular idea has been fully realized.

But it’s hearing French horn in this context that really drew my interest.  It’s not a common instrument to hear on a jazz album, though not unprecedented, either, to be sure.  Varner himself has appeared on albums by John Zorn, Miles Davis, Steve Lacy, Bobby Previte and Franz Koglmann (among others), as well as recordings under his own direction and where he was behind the steering wheel.  What I most appreciate about this session is that French horn isn’t part of a larger ensemble and acting in a complementary role… Varner’s French horn is standing there in the wide open, and how it interacts with piano is going to come through unobstructed without the distraction of other ensemble instruments.  I thought it would be an interesting listen going in, and my assumption was met.  The conversations recorded on The Swiss Duos are a winner, measured both as an enjoyable listening experience and as a source of curiosity.

“Bursting Hymn” and “Quasimodo” have Varner offering solemn tones and excitable ones, with pianist George Gruntz serving up some chipper accompaniment.  And Gruntz is no less cheerful even when he and Varner speak from the soul on “Big George Blues.”  But it’s on a track like “Summertime,” where Varner fully displays the melodic side of his instrument and framing Gruntz’s upbeat disposition in a new light that this particular collaboration shines brightest.  It’s an effect given even greater definition on a rendition of “It Could Happen To You,” with its smoky presence and patient, evocative discourse.

It’s the kind of approach Varner adopts in most of his duets with Gabriela Friedli.  Both of the tunes “Soft” and “Gabriela” shine down with the distant warmth and hazy form of moonlight.  “Big Fall” sees some atonality enter the frame, and the shift to a certain dissonance is completed on the frenetic “Circuits.”

And it’s that kind of behavior that typifies most all of Varner’s duets with pianist Christoph Baumann.  Tracks like “Play,” “Barbarians,” and “Alien Bug” present themselves as would a series of sparring sessions… the trade of punches, bobbing and moving, circling one another as they look for an opening.  The only reprieve is the melodic interlude of “Funny,” which slows things down and attains a relative peacefulness.

The duets with pianist Hans Feigenwinter represent the strongest collaboration of the four.  One of the longer pieces on the recording is a rendition of Feigenwinter’s “Elegy,” which provides Varner his best opportunity for extended melodic development on the album.  Feigenwinter, who has a talent for creating sublime music with brass instruments in small combos (see his excellent 2014 album Whim of Fate), continues that trend here.  “What Is This Thing Called First Strike Capability?” sees the duo in a greater state of agitation while still showing the same care and concern to melodic development… an approach continued on the melancholy “Cool.”

An interesting recording.  I’m glad I stumbled upon it.

Your album personnel:  Tom Varner (French horn), George Gruntz (piano), Christoph Baumann (piano), Gabriela Friedli (piano), and Hans Feigenwinter (piano).

Released in 2000 on Unit Records.

Jazz from the Seattle, Washington scene.

Available at:  eMusic | Amazon MP3