FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 2009

FMP CD 133

Felix Klopotek


Both in the area of Jazz as well as in improvised music, the saxophone-bass-drum trio is regarded as the power formation par excellence: raw, direct, no frills, reduced to the minimum in order to get out the maximum of power. Two names are inextricably bound up with this trio format: Sonny Rollins who, in 1957, left aside the piano player and presented himself as THE Saxophone Colossus. And Peter Brötzmann – who made his break-through with such a trio in 1967 (with Peter Kowald and Sven-Åke Johansson), and in 1978 his comeback as uncompromising hardcore player (with Harry Miller and Louis Moholo).

This line-up allows the interleaving of two instruments – in the classic case, the two time keepers – in order to propel the third instrumentalist, the saxophone player right out to the fore. Both Brötzmann and Rollins have relished this very much, each in his own way.

On the other hand this trio can also be seen as an isosceles triangle, as an optimal constellation offering plenty of possibilities for interaction, at the same time excluding the possibility of one player hiding behind the others. Maybe it is in the trio line-up, that the egalitarian idea of free improvisation – the consistent equality of all voices involved – may be realised in the best, meaning most transparent way. And there is also an historic role model for this, as well: Albert Ayler’s Trio with Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray (1964/65).

This is the historic background in which to place Stefan Keune, Hans Schneider and Achim Krämer: their trio unequivocally follows in the path of the classic Ayler group. This may come as a surprise because, as a rule, Keune’s playing is not to be compared with Ayler’s. Far from it.

Over the past twenty years that Keune has been playing in countless groups in Rhein-Ruhr-City – this half real, half imaginative mega city stretching from Dortmund to Cologne, he has been placed time and again in the »English corner«: concentrating on microscopic details, on the careful exploration of precisely measured sound areas, not interested in an improvisational approach geared towards rhythmical energy, remaining loyal to jazz ‘ecstasy’. It is not difficult to identify the influence of Evan Parker and, above all, John Butcher in his saxophone sound. As a consequence, Keune has recorded two CDs with John Russell, maybe the best British Improv-guitarist (the best known, of course, being Derek Bailey) (»Excerpts & Offerings«, 2000; »Frequency of Use«, 2002). With Russell being a long-term partner of both Parker and Butcher.

One thing is clear: Keune, Schneider and Krämer do not imitate the Ayler trio (which would also be absurd). But they have internalized the practice, put into the world in those days, of horizontal improvisation, a radical openness combined with great intimacy between the players.

The pieces of this trio follow a certain line, a kind of motive (not to be confused with a theme): they develop in a concentrated manner, at times in meticulously tiny steps, create, on the other hand, binding structures the musicians work on. Each moment in these pieces is regarded as so precious that it is not readily given up, thrown away. The music is lively, edgy, intense – meaning the opposite of tense and agitated. It emerges out of a kind of stringency, opening out more and more in the course of playing, a dynamic process taking on ecstatic forms and can even sound like classic Free Jazz! It is obvious that this stringency is the result of a deep familiarity – with this kind of music you have to be able to rely on each other, otherwise it falls apart. Already back in 1992, Keune and Schneider made a trio recording (at that time the drummer was Paul Lytton) and they have already produced one recording with Achim Krämer (»The long and the short of it«, 2007). Furthermore, Schneider and Krämer are connected by a shared musical history lasting decades: they were the 'rhythm section' in the cool Georg Gräwe Quintet, which put out two LPs on the FMP label more than 30 years ago. And apart from that they are also indispensable personages on the Rhein-Ruhr-City scene.

Despite its severity, what vouches for the openness of their music is exactly this horizontal way of improvising. Or, to put it differently: It is completely undetermined as to who sets the pulse. This severity develops from the process of playing – not the other way round. Each musician brings in his own ideas, which then merge in the course of an improvisation, stimulating each other, gobbling up each other. This is not a matter of course. Particularly in the 90’s, a school of improvisation prevailed in Europe which propagated the simultaneity of the nonattached: Call-and-Response was downright frowned upon, »obvious interactions« within the group were regarded as ‘sub’complex. Measured against this ascetic attitude Keune, Schneider and Krämer sound like a community of conspirators, united through babble, the big discussion.

The result in the end is that in the course of this musical dialogue, the musicians arrive at an entirely new understanding: Achim Krämer, a wonderfully swinging drummer, he can play Rock, loves Keith Moon. Nevertheless, he refuses to flog out the rhythm, casually enters the pieces, seems to be stumbling around at times, which then turns out to be a sleight feint of his improvisational fantasy, because in the next moment he grabs the initiative, driving the others into power play. Hans Schneider very often provokes connections and as a co-player you can always relate to his rich, inviting way of playing in order not to loose track of things during the heated debates. But Schneider can refuse as well, withdraw himself until he reappears impalpably, setting the final accents. And with Keune shredding sounds on the sopranino, working himself up, jabbering away almost on the verge of hysteria, he then joins in with a dense interplay of drum and bass without dominating or drowning it. With this trio, the more one of the musicians seems to be pulling back, the more attention he attracts. Correspondingly, the quiet pieces prove to be especially intense.

The special appeal of »No Comment« is that free improvisation is something which develops, which only through playing becomes what it is, not in need of conventions. This sounds banal but one must not forget that over the past twenty years the younger German disciples of this music in particular, in numerous symposia, working groups for improvised music and musicians meetings, have put in enormous efforts in order to penetrate this music (which threatened to boil down to a moral of improvisation). Keune, Schneider and Krämer leave this behind and free themselves through playing. Even though Keune’s spikey, piercing sopranino playing still evokes »English« associations, but his alto and above all his gutsy, voluminous baritone sound have, in the meantime, freed themselves from any role models.

In fact their music is so open, confident and so deeply relaxed that they can be classified within the big historic framework – with Albert Ayler, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray at its beginnings. And this is in fact the strength of free music that its protagonists, no matter how disjointed, see themselves as part of this continuum and do not betray its tradition.

Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton

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