Aaron Cohen (1996)

FMP Festival

Chicago is thousands of miles from Berlin, but for one weekend in November, this city in the heart of the Midwest hosted an expansive festival honoring a slew of outstanding European improvisers.

Free Music Production (FMP) is a German-based musicians’ collective and record label that has distinct esthetic connections to Chicago. As institutions committed to experimentation and cooperation among players, FMP is a distant relative of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which was formed a few years earlier in 1965. Throughout the past few years, many talented younger Chicago instrumentalists have demonstrated how much the Europeans have influenced them.

These alliances began early, starting with a workweek lunchtime panel discussion entitled, Impressions on Post-1960’s Free Improvised Music. The AACM Meets theFMP, at the Chicago Cultural Center. British saxophonist Evan Parker and AACM multi-reedist Douglas Ewart both convincingly spoke out against the paucity of government funding for the arts, but their duet together preceding the talk was an optimistic exultations. With Parker on soprano sax and Ewart on a wooden flute, they shaped dazzling minimalist impressions of sound together.

Throughout the next few days, this spirit of concord flourished. On Friday night at the HotHouse’s rented space in the Chopin Theater, German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann fronted a trio that included Chicago drummer Hamid Drake as well as bassist Harrison Bankhead from the AACM-affiliated 8 Bold Souls octet. Brötzmann’s notoriety as a cerebrum-scorching audio terrorist began with his late ‘60s MachineGun recording on FMP, but he hit a different kind of groove with this rhythm section. During their energetic set, the three pushed themselves toward blues-inflected hues that mixed especially well with Brötzmann’s extroversion. This direct tie to an identifiably jazz tradition was shocking in its accessibility, but Brötzmann did not relent in the torrential vigor that has been his real trademark.

A bundle of such striking Chicago-Europe concords unfolded during a Sunday concert at the University of Chicago’s Goodspeed Hall as a series of different combinations of bands hustled on and off stage during frequent short sets. Many of these formats were particularly unique. Four bassists – Bankhead, Chicago’s Kent Kessler, Peter Kowald, and Barre Phillips – backed vocalist Shelley Hirsch. In a superbly jagged synthesis of old-meeting-new-world instrumentation, clarinetist Rüdiger Carl joined guitarist Stephan Wittwer and pianist/electronics whiz Jim Baker. Evan Parker (who duetted with drummer Paul Lovens and later as a trio with Kowald on Saturday at the Chopin) sat in on a trio with guitarist Kevin Drumm and Robbie Hunsinger, who holds the principal oboe chair with the Chicago Civic Orchestra. A more straight-ahead combination - Chicago’s Ken Vandermark and Lovens - was explosive, featuring crashing cymbals to punctuate each pointed tenor skronk.

Not all of the impressive music created during the festival resulted from the cross-continental groupings. Many of the Europeans alone created an impact that’s destined to be remembered for some time. Kowald’s hour-long solo set on Saturday at the Chopin was an astonishing display of endurance and triumphant intuition. His intense combination of bow and bare-knuckles was the apotheosis of the AACM and FMP member’s longtime work in developing unaccompanied open-ended improvisation. The Cowws Quintet combined the dissonant strings of violinist Phil Wachsmann and Barre Phillips with a feedback-laden Wittwer and off-kilter wheezes of Carl’s accordion and clarinet, and anchored it all around solid pianist Irène Schweizer. As the night grew on, the eeriness of the Cowws Quintet took on a ghostly beauty reminiscent of David Lynch’s films. And the undisputed award for the most intriguing electronic contraption was Hans Reichel’s sawed-off, double-neck guitar that he could manipulate into sounding like cathedral bells.

from: Down Beat # 63, February 1996

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