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Adventures by Charlie Kohlhase's Explorer's Club

New Hampshire native and saxophone virtuoso Charlie Kohlhase certainly has a sense of humor - after all this is a man who titled one of his recordings 'Play Free or Die.' The contents of his latest CD "Adventures" also have a puckish, humorous lightness that I find both unusual and refreshing in the 'furrowed brow' realm of avant garde jazz. But Kohlhase doesn't go after the easy laugh or hearty guffaw, like Willem Breuker. His wit tends more towards the subtle and ironic, and though the music on "Adventures" hews towards the cerebral, it is never dry or pedantic. For example - the way he has one drummer trade fours with the horns over the bebopping walking bass and second drumset in 'Loquator & Taciturnator' just cracks me up, but it also sounds great.

After laboring in relative obscurity for a couple decades, Kohlhase has really come into his own as an improvisor, bandleader, and composer. During this time, Kohlhase has led a quintet, a saxophone quartet, a trio with John Tchicai and guitarist Garrison Fewell, and worked with a Who's Who of mostly Boston-area avant jazzers. "Adventures" finds him at the helm of a new septet that features a four horn front line, plus bass, electric guitar and two drummers. 'Decide for Yourself,' a joyous, splashy Threadgill-ian romp that features solos by both Miki Matsuki and Chris Punis, is an exception. In fact, I find Kohlhase's use of the dual drummers to be quite remarkable. Instead of having them play together all the time, Kohlhase pits one against the other - trading off parts and fills, one provides just accents or plays along with the front line while the other lays down the groove with the bassist. His compositions often have similar role reversals for the other instruments - 'The Alarm Clock is My Only Kryptonite' the different instrumentalists (guitar plus alto sax, then bass plus trombone) pair off to improvise using only dissonant overtones and harmonics, while the rest of the group plays a selection of melodic fragments in the background.

Despite having relatively large ensemble, Kohlhase's arrangements emphasize the use of space and silence - this is most beautifully realized on 'Stealing Beauty / Potuder Time,' a moderate tempo piece with a somewhat pensive theme that, again, recalls some of Henry Threadgill's wonderful late 80s work with his Sextet. The subsequent collective improvisation carries the thematic thread forward, two or three instruments at a time, dotted with spaces and pauses in an almost conversational manner. That the piece doesn't slow down, or lose one iota of its tension or focus, is a remarkable testament to the skill of Kohlhase's band.

A lot of these pieces change course several times over a relatively short timespan. 'Utensor,' for example, starts out with a rather lengthy, Braxton-esque head, played by all the horns and one drummer in tutti. The subsequent improvisations feature a tenor sax / bass duet that is joined by one of the drummers as the other horns interject more forcefully. Finally, the other drummer and the guitarist join in as alto sax and trombone take the spotlight. Just as this new grouping settles into a semblance of a groove, the other horns join in once again, pushing the music out even further before finally agreeing on one note to play together. Then the theme is re-introduced. Following a completely different curve is the irrepressibly funky 'The Star of The Show.' This tune - which starts off with a squalling, impassioned saxophone duet - is a tribute to the late, great James Brown. What's most refreshing here, besides Eric Hofbauer's superb and spirited guitar solo, is that Kohlhase chooses to pay tribute to James Brown by really sticking to his musical guns. Here, the funk rubs shoulders with the most heady, white-hot ecstatic free-jazz playing on the entire disc. And - like the rest of the CD - it works beautifully.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Charlie Kohlhase's Explorer's Club
  • CD Title: Adventures
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2009
  • Record Label: Boxholder Records
  • Tracks: Jasper Jaguar / Deceptor, Kohlhase and Forever, Loquator & Taciturnator, The Alarm Clock is My Only Kryptonite, Stealing Beauty / Potuder Time, Thrylkyll on the Schyllkyll / Psychopath on the Cyclepath, Decide for Yourself, Superhero Beatdown, Utensor, The Star of the Show
  • Musicians: Charlie Kohlhase (alto, tenor, baritone saxophones), Jeff Galindo (trombone, mutes), Matt Langley (tenor & soprano saxophones), Eric Hofbauer (guitar), Jef Charland (bass), Miki Matsuki (drums), Chris Punis (drums)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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