Bill Smith (1996)

The Hibernation Principle

On The Road Again

Octet, set the standards for many future attitudes; the seeds, containing the possibility of development. The Spontaneous Music Ensemble were: John Stevens, Evan Parker, Dave Holland, Derek Bailey and Kenny Wheeler. The Peter Brötzmann Octet were: himself, Willem Breuker, Fred Van Hove, Peter Kowald, Buschi Niebergall, Han Bennink and Sven-Åke Johansson
The second of these two recordings was released on the Free Music Production Label, who last year celebrated Twenty Five years of dedication to improvised music. An amazing achievement. So when Michigan bassist Mike Johnston, thinking I would be interested, sent me a fax announcing the FMP festival in Chicago; and then John Corbett invited me to speak at a seminar titled Impressions On Post 60’s Free Improvised Music – What could I do?

We arrived two days early, just to be in Chicago really, give us a chance to walk around this marvelous city; and there sat in the hotel lobby were Evan Parker, Rüdiger Carl, Irène Schweizer, Hans Reichel and Stephan Wittwer. Started just like that really – out to dinner all together. (…)

The designated meeting place for the musicians and friends that night was the Bop Shop, a club on West division where the wonderful NRG Ensemble were performing. With the spirit of Hal Russell still intact, Steve Hunt, Kent Kessler, Ken Vandermark, Mars Williams and Brian Sanstom just roared through the night bracketing their exuberant improvisations with tight short statements. A band to really check out. Loud music that does not hurt your ears. Very Urgent! Peter Brötzmann sitting in the very young audience, listening to his children. They even have Bass Ale on tap. A perfect prelude to the FMP Festival.

The Chopin Theater, also on West Division, is the venue for the first two nights. A wonderful space. Through a side door of a storefront café, down the rickety steps to a black walled intimate theatre. Stage one end and at the other in the corner a stand up bar. Just sweaty enough for the underground. And even a photographic show by Dagmar Gebers adorned the walls. Friends from every-where: Vancouver, Nanaimo, Mount Pleasant, Toronto, Victoriaville, even New Jersey.

Going out live on the radio the first set with Rüdiger Carl (accordion / clarinet), Hans Reichel (guitar), Paul Lovens (drums) and Shelley Hirsch – The September Band. Shelley Hirsch for the most part dominated and although not a “chick singer” with a back up band, she is utilizing fragmented text, chucked hither and thither for sure – but the others are pure sound without reference to such concrete language. Often sounding like a country and western spoof, visually dramatic, the thought came that here was a combination of Phylis Diller and Donald Duck almost accompanied by an unknown quality cabaret orchestra. As Barre Phillips whispered in my ear – “They have no shame.”

As one of the originators of FMP and perhaps the grandfather of the German avant garde, it was fitting that the first night should also feature Peter Brötzmann. “I hope you have a good time. We will try our best.”

Of all the European free players, Peter is perhaps the one that has played with American rhythm sections most frequently. On this night it is to be drummer Hamid Drake, who Peter has recorded with on several occasions, and AACM bassist Harrison Bankhead.

From the very first moment of his alto cry. Brötzmann set the feeling for this performance. His link with jazz history in a certain way seems clear; that Ornette and Ayler should live in the soul of a German from Wuppertal does however have a certain irony. Unlike the previous set this music belongs in rhythm, belongs in songs often poignantly simple. “They” say he has mellowed over the years, but I would rather think I have become more attuned. For all of its freedom and often ferocious power, it always swings, and it became more interesting as Peter seemed to gradually coax the Americans to extend their rhythmic safety net, to occasionally walk the wire, and he in turn obliged their history with his own unique perception of melody.

The first night was full of people, the second night even more. “From Wuppertal, Germany to the basement on West Division…” Peter Kowald doesn’t wait for the announcement to end – sawing away establishing his presence immediately, focussed with the repetition – a tune perhaps. Skipping and dancing along a soundscape, the horizon being his instrument shadow vignettes establishing the story. Round and round goes the bow, up and down goes his hand, setting mostly slightly altered rhythmic pulse – hypnotic. Imagine jigs, concertinas – dancing anyway; African rituals on a very large jaw harp, all form something as ancient as the instrument itself. Spirits of ancestors being coaxed from a wooden box. The German bass, the German bow and the German as a visual all melded together before our very eyes. So many voices coming from this wooden box. Is he a Shaman? And in the end he leaned down and sang the voices back in through the f-hole, filling it up again for the next time.

Two of my favorite trios over the past few years have both included Evan Parker. So his duet with drummer Paul Lovens took a minute to focus on. I wondered where Alex was. Evan and Paul are now as familiar to me as Ornette or Monk or Mingus, they appear as two old friends chatting with each other, intimate details of their life together, some private jokes, warming to each other until they are just on the edge of comfortable. So much has been written about Evan I don’t know what to say. But Paul Lovens with a musical saw in his arsenal and kicking the gong around meaning something quite different to Cab Calloway, presents the ultimate idea of improvised drumming. Sure there is a touch of Baby Dodds and Gene Krupa, but I think rather in terms of shape and color, of Kandinsky or Klee. Perhaps we are all becoming old friends and I am beginning to be part of the music on a first name basis. Then Peter Kowald joined them and I have a third favorite trio.

It getting late and some parts of my hibernation process are beckoning. The Cowws Quintet. What is this some kind of joke? The court orchestra of Louis the 19th of November. Genius’ of satire or a good time band? Should Irène Schweizer be knitting socks, Phil Wachsmann winning Trotsky look-alike competitions, Barre Phillips starring in the Wizard of…, Rüdiger Carl in Lederhosen; and Stephan Wittwer doesn’t have an end on the neck of his guitar. Conjunctive dada fabrications. The Café Voltaire Cabaret Orchestra with paper bags over their heads to obliterate identity. It doesn’t matter who is which only what. This of course is a band, the brilliant humor is not chance. I thought for a moment of the crinolined music box pirouette. Short pieces, a delight each concise charming imagined formality.

The final day at the University of Chicago is less interesting, mostly because it turned into a crap shoot marathon. Although the initial idea, as in Vancouver, of mix and match, did produce a few good memories. Mars Williams and Peter Brötzmann with close together songs suggesting a father and son team; an intimate duet of Ken Vandermark and Paul Lovens; the sensitive drumming of Michael Zerang, and a wonderfully silly idea with four bassist (Kessler, Kowald, Bankhead and Phillips), being the back-up band for Shelley Hirsch. A seasonable song about Christmas shopping, and an entirely new version of the popular song, Chicago.

In Vancouver the players had the possibility to develop inter-changeability over a period of three days, resulting in the formation of choice groups, an experience of each other, albeit minimal. Here in Chicago it seemed everyone was welcome to put their name on the chalk board and play, and although the performances were short they often resulted in meandering drivel. The Europeans, now established masters of the genre, were extremely generous and gracious to the less experienced.

But then, both in Vancouver and Chicago, we managed to store a goodly amount of energy to bring back home.

We would like to thank the organizers – The Coastal Jazz & Blues Society in Vancouver, and Marguerite Horberg (HotHouse), John Corbett and Gene Coleman in Chicago. Thanx also to the Goethe Institute of Chicago for partially sponsoring the FMP Festival, and assisting us in this endeavour. As Albert Mangelsdorff was fond of saying – Never Let It End.

from: CODA Magazine # 266, March/April 1996

The copyrights remain with the aforesaid sources and/or with the authors.