It does have a lot to do with being in the right place. The other day I was in the local drugstore getting a bag of cough drops and on the left of the counter was one of those "Bargain CDs!" displays with hoary old country releases, R&B repackages, one Duke Ellington I already had 3 of... you know the drill. But one CD was a double on the European Kairos label, an opera by 20th/21st century German post-serialist composer Helmut Lachenmann and done by the Stuttgart Staatsoper. Heck of a find for $5.99! And in such a place, too. Buying it seemed almost subversive.
Lachenmann's near-countrymen Kurt Gramiger (alto saxophone), Daniel Studer (acoustic bass) and Dieter Ulrich (percussion, oddments), all Swiss by trade (and I apologize for my PC not having umlauts, as there are quite a few here), are an equally cheery situation of happening-upon, as they are a sinuous trio that take you pretty far out on the clothesline but they don't push you off so that you land with your face in the grass. It's a fun if harrowing ride. Gramiger has some of Ornette Coleman's tart and oblique phrasing, though his tone is thicker; unlike many European Jazzmen he sounds like he's digested the influences of Stockhausen, Nono and maybe even Lachenmann, and is on the way back to melody.
You won't hear any blues, gospel or swing signifiers here, but I doubt you were expecting to. Clearly Gramiger is heading back the way he came via his own route, you may be certain. On the opening minutes of "Das Leichtfussige" he plays hide'n'seek with Ulrich while Studer bops in an unrecognizable time stream in the center of the performance. Listening to him alone is ear-opening! Both horn and drums on this track are played with a similar approach: broken phrases are forced into a sort of coherence, and so in a way they're playing hide'n'seek with the listener as well. In fact, the recording (largely improvised, I believe) seems to get more 'in' both the further into the CD one goes, as well as the more one listens to the entire thing. Further proof that structure can be idiomatic (I'm a critic, these things occur to me later than they should, perhaps)! In "Das Nervose" Studer links up with Gramiger in an attempt to tightly circle an agreed-upon chord (though possibly it might be one they made up) and leach all the tones out of it a la Evan Parker. Hearing a bass do this is a treat. Ulrich slowly inveighs himself into the proceedings, switching on occasion to a trumpetlike 'signalhorner', and Studer flits away from them at odd trajectories. A very scattered but affecting performance, and one of many.
Roscoe Mitchell fans may get into this as well. "Das Ehrzahlerische" is a lilting forest of sound dabs, while the CD's opener "Die Uberzeugte" is more unsettled and not as immediate as far as the rest of the CD's elastic intelligence goes. It might have been one of the trio's first improvs: nobody is in exactly the right place, cues are not so much missed as not entirely earmarked, and there are lengthy points in which one instrument (usually Gramiger) near-solos with only minimal comment from the other two. But if I'm right that "Uberzeugte" is one of their inital efforts, the groupmind is definitely aborning. It's obvious, and it's compelling. "Das Dramatische" is easily the most 'free' and loose-limbed of all the pieces here, and Gramiger does make me wonder at his tendency late in the improv to end his every phrase with a similar squeak, but he does some fine deconstruction of a 'cabaret' air earlier on (not the Broadway musical) and Ulrich's percussing is stellar throughout.
Recorded in 2001, possibly on Radio DRS 2, and mastered earlier this year at Bauer Studios, Ludwigsburg (where over half of ECM's catalog gets waxed), this will not be an easy recording to find but it will be well worth it. Gramiger, Studer and Ulrich do not seek to slay the listener with blinding technique, and we're all winners for it. Do some digging to find this one, you'll be rewarded.
by Kenneth Egbert
New Sounds - October 2004
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