Steve Lake (1991)

Big noise from Berlin

Steve Lake surveys the trials and triumphs of Free Music Production,
one of Europe's first independent improve labels.

You could make a case for the monumental Cecil Taylor in Berlin '88, that 11-CD collection, as a summation of Free Music Production's first 20 years and, on that basis, draw a conclusion along the lines of: FMP, the plucky little Berlin label devoted to spontaneous music, is stronger than ever today. You'd be right too, except "stronger than ever" is not, truth to tell, saying much: the company has spent most of the last two decades with its nostrils barely above water.

The opulence of the Taylor box is misleading. That project merits, certainly, the awards and acclaim showered upon it, but neither the box nor the concerts it commemorated would have been thinkable without a walloping grant from Berlin's Senatsverwaltung für kulturelle Angelegenheiten. In 1988, Berlin was Cultural City of Europe and FMP boss Jost Gebers managed to relieve the city's administration of some of its celebratory spare change: more power to him. But last November, once again, with a return of the traditional cash flow problem it was touch-and-go whether the Total Music Meeting, the annual improvisers event that FMP hosts at the Quartier Latin, would happen.

Over the years, FMP has several times announced its own imminent demise. At the end of 1982, its machinery ground to a near-halt and for a period of about 18 months no new recordings were made. Then slowly - a grant here, a distribution deal there - the cogs were turning again and FMP was back in what is euphemistically called business. Nobody has become rich from FMP's endeavours - not Gebers himself, who runs the company as a sort of mad and debilitating hobby while holding down an eight-hour-a-day job as a social worker, not the musicians who record for the label, and we won't even mention the wild-eyed sleeve note writers with their tin cups, at the bottom of improv's totem pole.

Talyor's Berlin 88 project, retrospectively "important", represented FMP at its most glam. (At the time, the Berlin Kongresshalle was never full, though tickets cost next to nothing, and the critics stayed away in droves). It was a project that can't easily be topped, at least not without indulging in three-ring all-star festival projects of the kind FMP set out originally to oppose.

Though the cooperation with Taylor continues, FMP's real job, year in year out, has been the programming of concerts and festivals featuring a small group of German Improvisers and their international friends and the dutiful recording of them. FMP records sound better now than they did in the hair shirt documentary days, but the recordings still accompany the live work, they are illustrations from it, progress reports. In a sense, every FMP record could be called The Story. So Far. There's little sense of the records as finished artefacts; calling them productions is pushing it.

Comrade Bert Noglik in generous mood asserted in FMP's 20th birthday booklet that "the musical range of FMP's presentations and productions is simply colossal...much wider than the narrow tracks radio service stations follow" Though the range is broader than detractors might allow there can be no denying that the company's focus has often been locked upon good old European Ayler/Eisler-influenced free jazz. Classic albums of the first decade, Globe Unity's Live In Wuppertal (FMP 0160), say, or Ulrich Gumpert's Echos von Karolinenhof (FMP 0710), might be described as workers epiphanies, or revelations by and for the non-religious and irreligious. (Albert and Hanns meet in the march, incidentally, wearing beards and boots.)

FMP textures still tend towards the dense rather than the spacious, clusters and glissandi swirling thick and fast. Shrieking flageolet-notes abound, the "natural" sounds of horns give way to multiphonics as a matter of course (though the natural sounds get more respect today than 20 years ago), pianos seldom escape spontaneous "preparation" nor cymbals bowing and scraping, drum kits are customized to incorporate the unlovely dull thud beside the sonorous boom.... Techniques have been refined over the years, but never over-refined and the old kaputt-play syndrome will still work at a pinch. This is, after all, mostly live (living) music meant to move and energize an audience. Not all of it bears repeating.

In the beginning, FMP was planned as a musicians collective and the launching of a record label was viewed as the necessary next step in the attempt to take care of the music outside the conventional jazz establishment. Previous efforts had included the founding of the New Artists Guild by Peter Brötzmann in 1966, which lasted only five months but prompted the self-financed recording of 1968`s crucial Machine Gun (FMP 0090, FMP CD 24), originally issued on Brötzmann's own BRÖ label but destined, upon reissue, to be FMP's best seller.

In 1968, anti-festivals organized in Cologne (by Alex von Schlippenbach) and Berlin (by Gebers and Co), established the originally rather truculent mood of protest in which FMP was launched. Gebers, then still a bass player, was one voice in an committee that also included Brötzmann, Schlippenbach, Peter Kowald and, a little later, Hans Reichel, Irène Schweizer and Rüdiger Carl,. Gradually - to telescope a decade into a sentence - the musicians backed away, leaving Gebers in the organizer's chair.

FMP made its recording debut in 1969 with Manfred Schoof's European Echoes (FMP 0010), a large ensemble set featuring Rava, Brötzmann, Dudek, Parker, Bailey, Rutherford, Van Hove, Schlippenbach, Schweizer, Kowald, Niebergall, Bennink, Favre. Pierre Favre was to abandon the more rough-and-tumble aspects of energy playing, Enrico Rava and Gerd Dudek to work across the broadest range of new jazz, but all these musicians are still delivering, and Brötzmann, Kowald and Schlippenbach still record as leaders for FMP.

Conspicuous in absence from the early manifestos - Schoofs`s record, Machine Gun and Schlippenbach's The Living Music (FMP 0100) - was multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel, who in 1962 had led Germany's first proto-free band. By 1969 more closely allied with the US avant garde as personified by Braxton, Marion Brown, Perry Robinson, and constant companion Jeanne Lee, Hampel ran his Birth label in transatlantic hops between Göttingen and the Bronx. In 1980, he finally had a solo album Waves/Wellen (FMP 0770) on FMP and was to be a key figure in the internal organization of Taylor's European Orchestra....

But apart from Hampel, all the major voices of German free jazz, and many of the stronger players from neighbouring territories, quickly gravitated to the label. Albert Mangelsdorff, already a star in an straighter jazz idiom, undergoes his free baptism on the trilogy Elements (FMP 0030), Couscouss De La Mauresque (FMP 0040), The End (FMP 0050), exhaustive documentation of a knockabout 1971 guest gig with the intimidating/hilarious Brötzmann/Van Hove/Bennink trio, and is an important contributor from then on.

Few of the younger free players have matched the strengths of the 68/69 crew; trombonist Johannes Bauer from the former GDR, a fresh-faced 36, and Dutch saxophonist Peter van Bergen, a mere 33, are a couple of the exceptions. Don't trust an improviser under 40 is a useful rule of thumb today, and FMP's recently added old rather than new talents to the roster. Hence Cecil Taylor (61 this year), Sunny Murray (53), and legendary 54-year-old Swiss altoist Werner Lüdi (legendary because he stretched a Rollins-like retirement into a 14-year-disappearing act), a veteran of Hampel's 62 unit and now leader of his own noisily articulate band Blauer Hirsch (see Cyberpunk (FMP 1240)) and occasional Brötzmann partner (as on Wie das Leben so spielt (FMP CD 22).

Burrowing through miles of red tape, FMP made contact with the East German improvisers in 1972 and began licensing their records, making history with the aforementioned Echos von Karolinenhof in 1979, the first co-production with the GDR's state-run Amiga label.

Until recently the non-German projects picked up by FMP were shunted onto the SAJ label which bears the initials of Swedish drummer Sven-Åke Johansson (his 1972 solo album was the first release). In the CD era, this national demarcation, inappropriate to improvisation's boundary-bursting ideals, is finally given the heave-ho. It's all FMP music now, whether it's strictly free music (whatever that finally means) or not, and it's been international since Machine Gun anyway, regardless of the bandleaders' birthplaces.

A few great FMP/SAJ records (in addition to those mentioned above):

Of Brötzmann's 40-odd FMP appearance, I return most often to Opened, But Hardly Touched (FMP 0840/50), the double LP with Harry Miller and Louis Moholo, probably the most outgoing saxophone trio album since The Trio's The Trio. Globe Unity's records are all crucial. . Evidence (FMP 0220) and Into The Valley (FMP 0270) (with Lacy) and Pearls (FMP 0380)(with Braxton) should be cornerstones of anybody's collection while Hamburg 74 (FMP 0650), a preposterous collision with the North German Radio Choir, is the most fun you can have legally. Globe Unity's status as leading free-ish orchestra is challenged by Barry Guy's LJCO on Stringer (SAJ-41) - also wonderful.

Schlippenbach's Pakistani Pomade (FMP 0110) introduces the trio with Parker and Lovens which has surprised the participants by becoming free improve's longest-lived small group. All too short-lived was the Chicago/Wuppertal/Dresden trio of Leo Smith, Peter Kowald and Günter Sommer - there's some very sensitive playing on Touch The Earth (FMP 0730) and Break The Shells (FMP 0920). Kowald, second most prolific FMPer, also sounds particularly good on Die Jungen: Random Generators (FMP 0680) where he's reamed with his former teacher Barre Phillips.

Guitarist Hans Reichel's solo albums Bonobo (FMP 0280) and Dawn of Dachsman (FMP 1140) are very pretty. Ditto Keith Tippett's three Mujician (SAJ-37, SAJ-55, FMP CD 12) excursions. And Open (FMP 0570), with Gerd Dudek, Buschi Niebergall, and Edward Vesala is a rare example of the great saxophonist encouraged to dominate a session - it prompts one to ask why there aren't 40 Dudek albums on FMP - or anywhere else.

from: The Wire No.84 February 1991. Reproduced by permission.

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