Milo Fine (1980)

Free Jazz on German Wax

The German jazz labels ECM and MPS (the latter released in the states on Pausa) are quite well known here. Almost totally unknown in America, and far more vital and challenging are releases on the German Free Music Production (FMP) label. In existence since the late ‘60s, as fundamentally a musicians’ co-op venture under the guidance of Jost Gebers (and later with Dieter Hahne), FMP has produced over 100 albums featuring some of the most advanced and “on-the-edge” musicians in creative music (jazz). The quality of music presented by this award-winning company (the recipient of the 1977 Berlin Critics prize) clearly shows that solid and original jazz is not just being produced by Americans. While most of the artists on FMP are not known here, open-minded listeners should make the effort to check out.

Their longevity and consistency is comparable to the likes of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, et al.

FMP regulars Alex Schlippenbach and Irène Schweizer (both pianists) are featured on albums recorded in their “early days” (late ‘60s) as well as more current efforts in the latest batch of albums to be released by FMP. Schweizer’s Early Tapes (FMP 0590) clearly reveals her roots in such players as Taylor, Paul Bley and Dollar Brand. The most successful pieces on this trio album are those in which tunes/structures are used. Her totally free playing has become much stronger as the years have passed, as she also has forged a muscular, diverse, creative and technically excellent style that is truly her own. One can experience this on her ’77 solo excursion Hexensabbat (FMP 0500) which features one “live” side and one recorded in the studio. The former features the title cut, an incredible textural piece centered around a prepared piano and “Rapunzel…Rapunzel…”, an almost suite-like construction focused around various riffs and variations and ending with brilliant progressive/fragmented ragtime section that literally brings the house down. The studio side presents shorter pieces which range from overt swing (with walking bass left hand patterns) to dirge-like ballads to bouncing melodic excursions to violent lidslamming antics. (This reviewer’s favorite title here is “Dykes on Bykes”).

Schlippenbach is featured on a session recorded in ‘66/67 under trumpeter Manfred Schoof’s name; The Early Quintet (FMP 0540). These two leaders of European free music along with saxist Gerd Dudek, bassist Buschi Niebergall and either Jaki Liebezeit or Sven-Åke Johansson on drums, performed intricate melodic tune structures which gave way to intense interplay and blistering free solos often augmented with ingenious arrangement devices. (It is interesting to note that the ostinato pattern used by the pianist on “Turn 14” was originally utilized in his piece “Globe Unity”, a composition which was the cornerstone of the Globe Unity Orchestra, a free music big band founded in ’66 that still exists today and whose work is well-documented on FMP, PO TORCH and JAPO, the latter an outgrowth of ECM).

More recent Schlippenbach work is found on Three Nails Left (FMP 0210) recorded in ‘74/75 and featuring his regular quartet (Evan Parker: Saxes; Paul Lovens: percussion; Peter Kowald: bass). On all 3 “live” pieces, one experiences the unrelenting intensity (even during quiet sections) that this quartet exudes. Schlippenbach is in sublime form, his two-fisted attacks pushing the pianos to their limits. Parker rips, tears and growls. His feature piece, “Black Holes”, being an early example of his circular breathing techniques on soprano sax, which he uses to create piercing split tone walls. And Kowald and Lovens thrust and push, laying down textures as well rhythms.

Other FMP regulars featured in recent releases are the Brötzmann/Van Hove/Bennink trio (which is no longer in existence), saxophonist Rüdiger Carl (who is often heard with Schweizer) and guitarist Hans Reichel. The trio’s Outspan No. 2 (FMP 0200) is a “live” recording from ’74 and showcases the group’s penchant for hard free blowing as well as subtle and overt humor. Pianist Van Hove often plays the romantic against the wailing of saxophonist Brötzmann (the father and enfant terrible of German jazz) and percussionist-horn-man Bennink, but also gets into the power-play climaxes. (He begins the second side with the Stones “Backstreet Girl”, a very nice touch). Bennink is particularly funny on the second side with all his verbal carrying-on (including a reoccurring counting-off, which, at the end of the side, broke up the audience as well as this listener). As one can ascertain from this brief description of this record (and these players’ music in general), they are very good at juxtaposition and counterpoint – always throwing each other curves and integrating them into successful improvisations. Buben (FMP 0530) features Reichel and Carl in a series of 12 duets. But instead of playing their “main” instruments, they play violin and concertina respectively, the instruments they originally played as children. The result is a startling series of dialogues exploring both the textural and tonal possibilities of their axes in a quasi-primitive (read: “pure”) manner. A real delight.

Besides documenting their regular roster of players, FMP also presents albums by special guests and younger, up-and-coming musicians. In the former category are releases by the Steve Lacy Quintet, Willem Breuker/Leo Cuypers Duo and Africa Djolé. Follies (SAJ-18) is further evidence as to just how much a crime it is that soprano saxophonist Lacy has not been able to bring his regular working quintet back to America. (Lacy has lived in Europe for a number of years). Working its way through 4 of Lacy’s distinctive angular pieces, the group (Steve Potts: alto; Irene Aebi: cello; Kent Carter: bass and Oliver Johnson: drums) pulls, twists and counterpoints effectively with its unique sound and approach, which along with its Monkish overtones also features an interesting mixture of bop (particularly in Potts’ neo-bop stylings). Classical and free styling (the interplay of the two string players being very effective, subtly creating an underlying web over which Johnson pulses and saxophonists sail). Like Lacy, Breuker forges his music from a number of diverse sources, but unlike Lacy, is very much into humor, theater and schmaltz.

Superstars (SAJ-17) presents the technically monstrous reed playing his seven instruments in duo and a capella situations with pianist Cuypers, an effective player whose approach is what one might get by mixing Monk and an extreme romantic – oblique angles and lots of passion with a self-defined technique that is fairly loose. From the virtuosic displays of extreme free exploration to the little quotes form all types of music which pepper the improvisations to the extremely schmaltz melodies they sometimes explore to the hilarious use of “There’s No Business Like Show business” (titled here as “There’s No Business And So On”) this duo stimulates on many more levels than just the obvious one of comedy. Their laughter does make for an easily opening door into their creativity. (It should also be noted that the idea for including “There’s No” came from an interview just before this ’78 concert began.)

Guinea’s Africa Djolé presents free music of a superficially different sort on the album titled by the groups’ name (SAJ-19). The quartet, featured at the 1978 Workshop Freie Musik in Berlin (where this album was recorded) presents traditional African percussion music played on/with tam-tams, voices, harmonica, sico, doundoumba, and congoma. It’s an exciting album featuring the tight interaction and polyrhythm’s of this authentic quartet, whose music bears a lot of similarity to European/American free music at least in spirit.

So much for the rave reviews. Lest one think that everything FMP puts out is as strong as the albums thus far mentioned, this reviewer should mention two albums that he found too quite weak in this latest bunch of releases from the label. Wetterau (SAJ-16) by the group Grumpff, features a sextet playing tunes executed tightly with clever arrangements but having extremely derivative solo stylings.
John Tchicai And Strange Brothers (SAJ-15) presents pleasant, lyrical Ornette Coleman-based free jazz with plenty of “niceness” but not that much creative substance. Veteran free player Tchicai, who participated in the New York free scene in the ’60s and can still blow with a challenging edge, is here, with his 3 partners, locked too much into an Ornette mold without adding anything really distinctive.
But, hey, 2 semi-clinkers out of 11 albums ain’t bad.

from: Sweet Potato, July 1980

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