On the Cusp of Fire and Water





On the Cusp of Fire and Water

Can fate be tempted? If one has the patience, perhaps. Steuart Liebig and Michael Vatcher have known each other since the seventies but while the former was living in Los Angeles, the latter called Amsterdam his home. Over a spell of time it seemed that never the twain would meet, but then, all of a sudden, Vatcher was off on a surprise visit to Los Angeles. From then on the pieces fell into place, including getting Vinny Golia to play and recording the music, even if the drums had to be borrowed.

What transpires here is music of a high level from three very intuitive musicians. They pick the threads and spin them into convincing extensions, imagination working at prime level. Their sonic landscape keeps evolving; pastoral articulation and free-wheeling harmonic structure, odd angles and some electronica sit compactly in the spectrum. The push and the pressure are witnessed in "Transit," with Golia describing manifold arcs on the soprano saxophone and Vatcher heating it up on the drums and the air horn; Liebig adds to the momentum, his bass creating whirlwind figures. Matter of fact, Liebig's use of the contra bass guitar makes for a distinct approach that adds to the temperament.

There is a different cast to "Flurries," opening quietly on the brushwork of Vatcher before Golia gives it a new dimension, etching the groove deeper on the clarinet and stamping the tenor with his agile moves from long lines that billow to ones that descend in a shower. The sound of pop guns, a growling bass and the stritch are the "Aftermath." The way they build the layers of sound is interesting as they come together as though of one mind and take the music through different characterisations, including references to Middle Eastern music and swing.

(Jerry D'Souza, )


This is a welcome reunion of old friends. Steuart Liebig and Michael Vatcher have known each other for years but hadn't played together for about a quarter-century until the drummer came back to California for a visit. The two mates joined up with Vinny Golia to jam on a hot summer night in 2001 while Wayne Peet taped the process.

These free-form jams are marked by the usual intuition and keen ears one expects from these three men. Vatcher is reminiscent of Han Bennink at times, given his propensity for non-drumlike sounds and doo-dads. "Flurries" builds from sporadic flits of such sounds, until Golia's clarinet and Liebig's bass find the perfect holding pattern over Vatcher's eventual groove. It's amazing how suddenly the players can end up on the same page after seemingly walking their own paths, but this is the mark of top-notch group improv.

Golia's alto flute flutters like a moth on "Prelude," leaning towards classical tones one moment and the avant-garde the next. After Liebig's Eastern-inflected solo, Golia moves to soprano sax and totally alters the dynamic. It's a pity that Golia didn't have his Tubax contrabass sax handy, as it would be fun to hear how Liebig would respond to another low-end monster.

As Vatcher's pop guns emerge on "Aftermath," one wonders whether Peet overdubbed and processed them or if the drummer created all that noise live behind the huffing stritch. The beginning of "Transit" juxtaposes very slow drumbeats and very fast soprano, with Liebig taking up the middle ground. After a fashion Vatcher catches up to Golia and things even out.

"Undertow" carries an appropriate sense of danger, and Golia's clarinet emulates the tumbling and panic of being sucked down into the water. Liebig's bass sound is especially fun, like a giant stringed tympani. Masters of sonic creativity at their best.

(Todd Jenkins,


Released three years after its recording, this session offers an unusual take on free improvisation - - here cross-idiomatic much more than non-idiomatic. Versatile enough to adapt to rock, jazz, and free settings, drummer Michael Vatcher displays lots of finesse, whether he's moving small objects on top of his drums to produce quiet textures or rolling away like a madman. Vinny Golia can step away from jazz, but you cannot take the jazz out of his phrasing and lyricism. His grace at the soprano sax and clarinet and his powerful flute playing are featured here. Steuart Liebig, the conveyor of this session, is the prime mover: playing an electric E-flat contrabass guitar supplemented by electronics, he shifts constantly between thunderous distorted riffs, looped soundscapes, textures, and abstract playing, but always rooted in some form of rock music. As a result, the trio is puzzling at first, say for the duration of "Flurries," the opening track. Then, as the listener starts to grasp the scope of each player and the common ground the three musicians aim for, the music makes more sense and resonates at a deeper level. The 18-minute "Prelude" (featuring Golia on alto flute) and the eight-minute "Transit" deliver the strongest moments: nice contrasting sections, plenty of energy and listening. In comparison, the 20-minute closer, "Undertow," is uneven, its quiet middle section lacking interplay, the remainder not boasting the panache of the previous tracks. In the Cusp of Fire and Water is not an essential item from any of these artists, but it will make a nice complement for listeners who found excitement in Locustland, the CD by Liebig's group the Mentones that came out at around the same time as this one.

(François Couture,


Over the years, I've tried to keep up with some of the Los Angeles-based improvisers who don't get enough recognition as they would if their zip code were more high profile. Bass guitarist Liebig and omni-reedist Golia are both adventurous composers but, in the last several years, they've snuck out some killer free trio sessions (usually with Billy Mintz at the kit). I've enjoyed all that I've heard by them, but when I got this one in the mail I thought I knew more or less what to expect from it. Not so! California-raised, Amsterdam-residing percussionist Vatcher - who knows a thing or ten about open loose trio sessions - was home for a visit and Liebig wisely hooked up some studio time. Partly because of the excitement generated by any new musical formation, and partly because of the rhythmic goosing Vatcher gives these old partners, this hour-plus of creative music is pretty distinct.

They range from the heat of the opening "Flurries" to the long meditation of "Prelude," with Golia's marvelous flute expression set in a bed of bowed percussion and huge reverberant thrums from Liebig's bass guitar (both he and Vatcher, by the way, use electronics and toys like popguns to create a sense of mischief and danger on occasion). Liebig has the uncanny ability to switch between lead lines and deep-down rumbling on his instrument; that he does it without inviting charges of wankery, and instead comes across as just deeply musical, is much to his credit. But really it's no surprise, given the thoughtful free music these three resourceful musicians have made so often. The wonderful surprise of the session - or, perhaps better, the delight - is Vatcher's playing, which is so liquid and so firm at the same time, slipping between idiomatic references playfully while still hewing close to the sense of alien complexity that characterizes the best free improv sessions. This trio can crank out fire music, they can float gracefully through restrained textural studies, and they can even funk it up pretty convincingly. Listening to Golia blow is always worth the price of a ticket, but it's this trio's ability to shift between different musical voices with integrity that really distinguishes this session.

The disc probably would have been just as strong without the 20-minute closer "Undertow," but it's still a highly enjoyable disc.

(j bivins,


Ad hoc trio sessions featuring a multi-reed player and a strong West Coast orientation, these CDs show how different players approach improvisation.

Linking Andrew Voigt, former member of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Morgan Guberman, a quirky soundsinger and electric bassist -- both from the Bay area -- and Ian Davis, a resourceful percussionist from North Carolina, at home in settings ranging from duos to large ensembles, FIND THE BURROW AND BURY YOUR HEAD follows a minimalist path.

Recorded less than four months earlier, ON THE CUSP OF FIRE AND WATER has a more playful bent. This is probably due to the presence of former Angelo and present day Amsterdam resident, drummer Michael Vatcher, who brings his air horn and pop gun to the session along with his ideas. His partners in the endeavor are Vinny Golia, whose command of nearly every reed instrument extant involves him with most creative music making in the Los Angles area; and bass guitarist Steuart Liebig, who despite the usual pop-orientation of his axe, has been onside with experimenters like percussionist Gregg Bendian. Not long ago he also recorded POMEGRANATE, his own impressive large ensemble CD, for Cryptogramophone. . . . .

No one vocalizes on the other CD, although Vatcher -- who has backed a bunch of Netherlands-based leaders from Dutch pianist Michiel Braam to American reedist Michael Moore -- gives his air horn and popgun an explosive workout on "Transit". This is after he uses quick rolls and flams to hold the rollicking beat as Golia's double-tonguing and circular breathing continue unperturbed. Liebig somehow manages to produce arco [!] fills as well as resonating country picking strums on "Aftermath", as Vatcher switches from irregular jumping rhythms to beboppy cymbal work. Meanwhile the reedist warbles a repetitive melody, then downshifts to smears.

Interestingly enough, like Voigt on the other disc, his improvising on flute -- and especially the stritch, which sounds like an off-pitch alto saxophone -- sometimes takes on an Arabic cast.

When Golia emphasizes this orientation, as he does on "Prelude", it isn't long before he's buzzing out some cross-blown tones, with the facility of Rahsaan Roland Kirk -- jazz's acknowledged stritch master. This sound intersects with Vatcher's scraped cymbal accompaniment and a secondary ponticello line from Liebig's bass. As the piece speeds up, the bassist creates a complimentary counterline with looping reverb that could be coming from a guitar rather than a bass. Leaving the stentorian beat to Liebig's axe, Golia trills with a pleasantly nasal quality that soars more than it drones, and Vatcher batters out a semi-swing beat.

"Undertow", at almost 201/2 minutes, fares better than Numinous Opossum's almost 22 minute "Find the Burrow and Bury your Head", as each trio member tries to come up with unexpected tones. Vatcher goes from rattling temple bells and rolling glass armonica textures to bass drum resonation and a cymbal-crashing backbeat, while Liebig flat picks a steady line that leeches into rock territory. Meanwhile Golia seems to instantaneously switch from quivering, high-pitched stritch pitches to mellow flute timbres and then onto mid-range circular breathing from the clarinet. The piece reaches a crescendo with the reedist squeezing out sharp trills and irregular split tones. Coupled with a hocketing bass lines, the sound finally dissipates into a single vibrated tone. . . .

Two trios, two conceptions ... both are worth investigating.

(Ken Waxman,


Featuring Vinny Golia on soprano sax, stritch, flute & clarinet; Steuart Liebig on contrabass guitars & technology and Michael Vatcher on drums & percussion. You probably know of multi-reeds wonder Vinny Golia from his 20+ releases on Nine Winds and Music & Arts and no doubt you are well aware of the superb percussionist Michael Vatcher from his work with Michael Moore or Four Walls. Like Golia, Steuart Liebig hails from the L.A. creative music scene, is one of the finest bassists on the planet has a half dozen great releases out on Cadence, Nine Winds and Cryptogramophone. Nels and Alex Cline fans certainly know of Steuart from his work with the brothers Cline, as well as with Greg Bendian. This wonderful work was recorded live in L.A. in July of 2001. This is a very special improv trio date as each member is in amazing form, consistently flowing together in tight network of connected threads and free spirits. There are many moments when it is hard to tell that they are merely improvising, since they work so well together as one strong united trio. Vatcher adds a good deal of his unique charm with items like popguns, an air horn, vocal percussion sounds and most likely that dulcimer like thang that he plays whenever I hear/see him live. This is a particularly strong batch.

(DMG Newsletter)


The newest release from Red Toucan, a trio setting for Stuart Liebig, Vinny Golia, and Michael Vatcher, continues in the grand tradition of the label. Vatcher in particular is an astonishing player, shamefully under-recorded. (For those only familia3r with Vatcher's playing on Zorn's Spy Vs. Spy, Michael Moore's Jewels and Binoculars, a set of Bob Dylan covers, is mandatory listening.) Liebig, on the unruly E-flat ContraBassGuitar, applied tools and technology, set up the encounter, but certainly no one here plays the starring role. This is striking group interplay, with a generosity and musicality too often missing in such spontaneous combinations. "flurries" turns into a stunning clarinet workout for Golia, with wonderful moments by all. Tracks two and three, "prelude" and "aftermath" (one wonders what happened in between?), are extended forays into collective improvisation with Vatcher's popguns featuring on the latter - - an odd but not gimmicky sound.

Golia, as always, is ultimately a melodicist - - even with his typically extreme exploration of registers and his love of, seemingly, the entire reed family - - and song-like statements never seem too far from his mind. He puts down some aching melodies on the latter half of "aftermath", as Vatcher seems momentarily lost to the world. Liebig's contributions may be the hardest to pinpoint, as his sound is rather mercurial - deeply sonorous at all tempos, sounding both and not at all like a bass guitar. He manages some remarkable speed, counteracted by slow-moving statements from the other two, during the nearly eight-minute (shortest piece on the disc, by the way) "transit". Wrapping it all up is "undertow", beginning with the sound of falling objects courtesy of Vatcher and a warped electronic from Liebig. The opening nine minutes are a model of restraint until all hell brakes loose in a momentary lapse of King Crimson (imagine Tony Levin and Bill Bruford circa Discipline and you'll get the idea) before everyone regains their senses. The remainder of the piece stays truer to form and ends with a swinging outro from Golia.

A wonderful recording, worth returning to again and again; here's to many, many more from Red Toucan.

(Matthew Sumera, July 2004,


Red Toucan begins its second decade with In the Cusp of Fire and Water, which documents a July 2001 concert presenting a rare opportunity for electric bassist Steuart Liebig to play with drummer Michael Vatcher. The two had been in sporadic communication after working together in the 70s before Vatcher moved to Holland, where he became an integral part of the music scene in groups such as Available Jelly and the Maarten Altena Ensemble. A flying visit by the drummer to LA (he had to borrow a kit for this date) presented the opportunity for a musical reunion, and Liebig secured his services of his frequent playing partner multi-reedist Vinny Golia for the occasion. Given the slapped together nature of the event, the performances are remarkably coherent. Golia has an extensive discography and anybody familiar with it will not be surprised by his performance here on clarinet, soprano sax, alto flute and stritch. He's always chosen excellent rhythm sections on his recordings and Liebig and Vatcher provide such backing, while supplementing their primary instruments with other percussion devices, "applied tools and technology". Behind Golia's ethereal flute playing on "Prelude", Liebig plays countering lines of meandering high notes while Vatcher bows his cymbals eerily before the bass lines achieve a degree of coherence and the drums enter to move the piece forward. Golia then switches to soprano and the rhythm section ups the funk content to a crowd-pleasing level, all done in a seamless manner with solo and duo episodes that don't overstay their welcome. The other songs proceed in a similar episodic manner (no composition credits are given so I assume all were collaborative efforts) that effectively maintain interest through the twists and turns as all players listen and react very well to each other. A good start for the second decade, Red Toucan.

(Stephen Griffith,


No que à música improvisada diz respeito, seja esta "livre" ou "idiomática", são as situações imprevistas as que resultados mais surpreendentes podem ter. Neste caso, o americano exilado em Amesterdão Michael Vatcher informou o baixista Stewart Liebig de que iria a Los Angeles e logo este, em cima da hora, formou um trio "ad hoc" para aproveitar a sua passagem pela cidade dos anjos, convidando para terceiro elemento o multi-instrumentista Vinny Golia. Um grupo de que, provavelmente, ninguém se lembraria se não fosse a urgência da solução e que, pelo ouvido, funciona. O baterista e percussionista Vatcher está imbuído da maneira europeia de entender a improvisação, não só no que respeita à heterodoxia com que interioriza os legados do jazz (inevitável, quando se tem Golia por companheiro), como à perspectiva organizacional que aplica ao seu trabalho (não nos podemos esquecer que ele é um dos elementos do grupo 4 Walls, herdeiro dos Roof de Tom Cora, especializado na canção política experimental). Liebig toca a rara guitarra contrabaixo eléctrica, que lhe permite dar uma coloração algo "funky" a contextos que nada têm a ver com essa área da música negra dos EUA. Golia, por sua vez, desdobra-se nestas gravações entre o saxofone soprano, o stritch, instrumento de palheta próximo dos saxofones inventado pelo lendário Roland Kirk, a flauta alto e o clarinete, ou seja, com apenas alguns exemplares da sua habitual parafernália, excluindo a dimensão etnicista e exótica que costuma acrescentar às suas prestações. A mistura destas personalidades e destes elementos não podia ser mais cativante, ainda que, aqui e ali, se notem alguns desencontros ou sobreposições de vontades pedindo resolução. Talvez numa próxima oportunidade, mas é duvidoso que tal se proporcione novamente.

On the Cusp of Fire and Water, Red Toucan Records

(Rui Eduardo Paes ,



In that to improvised music it says respect, either this "exempts" or "idiomatic", the ones are the unexpected situations that resulted more surprising can have.   In this in case that, the American exiled in Amesterdam Michael Vatcher informed the stock exchange operator Stewart Liebig of whom the Los Angeles would go soon and this, in top of the hour, formed "a ad hoc" trio to use to advantage its ticket for the city of the angels, inviting for third element the multi-instrumentista Vinny Golia.   A group that, probably, nobody would remember if was not the urgency of the solution and that, for the ear, it functions.   The baterista and percussionista Vatcher are imbuído in the European way to understand the improvisation, in that it not only respects to the heterodoxia with that interioriza the legacies of the jazz (inevitable, when if it has Golia for friend), as to the organizational perspective who applies to its work (in we cannot forget them that it is one of the elements of the 4 group Walls, heir of the Roof de Tom Cora, specialized in the song experimental politics).   Liebig touches rare guitar contrabass electric, that it allows to give to a coloration something it "funky" the contexts that nothing have to see with this area of the black music of Golia U.S.A., in turn, unfolds in these writings between saxophone soprano, stritch, instrument of vane next to saxophones invented by the legendary Roland Kirk, the high flute and clarinet, or either, with only some units of its habitual equipment, excluding the etnicista and exotic dimension that costuma to add the its installments.   The mixture of these personalities and these elements could not be captivate, still that, here and there, if they notice some failures in meeting or overlappings of wills asking for resolution.   Perhaps in a next chance, but it is doubtful that such if provides again.]


This has to be one of the best improvising trios I've heard in 2004: excellent interplay, fresh use of instrumental prowess, entwined articulations among exuberant trips. Golia's reed technique is limpid to say the least, with a creativity that's continuously fruitful while proposing new sketches of sapient alternative to the obvious. Liebig plays contrabass guitar getting the best from each one of his timbral ranges - from bass currents flowing at the threshold of audibility to free-form fingerings in more uptempo settings. Vatcher's arsenal is typical of an intelligent percussionist, someone who prefers listening to the others rather than forcing himself upon them; right then you can appreciate a variegated and conspicuously genial personality, capable of distinguish itself without shouting in the chaos. The resulting music is clearly enjoyable and self-selective, leaving out useless memories to look the future straight in the eyes.



Most Signal to Noise readers will probably be more familiar with Michael Vatcher (a ubiquitous presence in the Amsterdam improv scene) and L.A. multi-reedist Vinny Golia, but there is a reason that bassist Steuart Liebig's name is listed first on this collective outing.. Though Golia sounds solid as always (heard here on soprano, stritch, flute and clarinet) and Vatcher darts and drives his way through the spontaneous improvisations, Liebig's six-string electric Eb contrabassguitar dominates. The improvisations move in fits and starts, from conventional free interactions to funk-driven stomps to timbral explorations. When it clicks, the music tumbles along with a wayward energy. Golia is able to dig through most authoritatively on soprano, his flute play in particular getting buried under the boomy rubbery sound of Liebig's bass Vatcher's ability to fleetly shift and respond is an asset throughout. But too often in the long-form improvisations, the three lose focus and are caught casting around for ways to pull it back on track. And here, in particular, Liebig's rumbling reverberations, loquacious felicity and tendency to throw what he refers to as "applied tools and technologies" (electronic treatments and processing)in to the mix works against them. It may be the ad hoc nature of this collaboration, but the three seem to be on a constant search to find common ground. While always technically dazzling, the three players somehow never gel together to create a group sound. These types of one-off meetings are the chanciest types of free playing. This recording documents the search; but one that doesn't fully deliver.

(Michael Rosenstein, Signal to Noise)


Golia's trio with Miranda and Cline was a varied creature indeed; when on baritone or soprano, the fire was reminiscent of power trios like that of John Surman, Barre Phillips and Stu Martin. But when Golia and Cline opened up, employing shakuhachi, ney and an assortment of gongs, the improvisations eclipsed an expected AACM influence into something more exotic and unfamiliar, an introspective exploration into the wellsprings of natural sonic environments, possibly matched only by the work of Donald Garrett and Zusaan K. Fasteau. Joined by drummer Michael Vatcher and bassist/electronic musician Stuart Liebig, On the Cusp of Fire and Water, the openness and fluidity of that band is both recalled and extended. Though conceptualized by Liebig, this aggregation fits in well with the lineage of deep-listening trios that Golia has fronted over the years.

Surprisingly, Liebig tends to avoid the trappings of an electric bass, employing the "groove" rarely and only when the flow of an improvisation calls for it. Rather, he punctuates sparse collective explorations with jagged harmonics and fluid pizzicato lines (thank fretless for that), augmented with tastefully applied live electronics, high-pitched whines and bottom-end drones that commingle with Vatcher's subtle cymbal work and Golia's breath. Apart from the building flurry of "Transit," most of the pieces here focus on creating an improvised canvas of activity, intermingling and collisions, rather than kinetics.

In essence, these recordings offer a more gradual experience of sonic environments, where song and sound are like a mingling of flavors on the tongue. Get your utensils ready.

(Clifford Allen, All About Jazz: New York)