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Peter Brötzmann + Alexander Von Schlippenbach + Han Bennink
Fifty Years After
Trost TR194

Fred Van Hove
Fred Van Hove at 80
Dropa Disc ‎DD006



Of the five principals of first-generation European improvised music heard on Fred Van Hove at 80 and Fifty Years After, Evan Parker is the youngest at 75; both Alexander von Schlippenbach and Fred Van Hove are over 80, a milestone Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink will soon reach. Obviously, their temperaments have changed over the years, their revolution having been won long ago; but they continue to energetically refine the tenets of improvised music. Both collections are as engaging as their recordings of twenty years ago or more. Whenever a generation of innovators reach this stage of life, the thing to watch is whether their current work represents a victory lap or a surge into the stretch. These recordings argue forcefully for the latter.

Fred Van Hove at 80 is an essential document, a hard cover book with three CDs pocketed inside the front and back covers. The bulk of the 80-page volume is Hugo de Craen’s authoritative critical biography, which draws extensively from the Flemish keyboardist’s diary, and provides great insights into his deliberative sensibility, his mulling over likes and dislikes, and his honing of ideas with a Giacometti-like incisiveness. Even readers familiar with Van Hove’s work will learn much about his motivations for collaborations such as his central, but under-documented trio with singer Annick Nozati and trombonist Johannes Bauer, and his tactics in building infrastructure for improvised music in Antwerp, his lifelong hometown. Every episode feeds the overarching narrative of Van Hove’s evolution as a contrarian, whose pursuit of an “inward” aesthetic precipitated his departure in the early 1970s from the trio with Brötzmann and Bennink, the franchise unit of open-hydrant intensity, and has shaped his work ever since. de Craen’s rendering of the man and his times is straightforward, refreshingly devoid of pedantry and hagiography, a fine example of how just the facts can be more than enough to convince a reader of the subject’s importance.


Fred Van Hove, Peter Brötzmann & Hamid Drake                                                             ©Geert Vandepoele

However, any attempt to read the biography will be disrupted by the music, culled from the series of concerts held throughout Belgium during the year-long celebration of Van Hove’s milestone birthday in 2017. Two of the three are disc-long solos, one on piano and the other on the historic Victor Horta organ in Brussels; a set with Parker and drummer Hamid Drake rounds out the collection. Arguably, the discs should be heard in the reverse order by which they are numbered. It may seem counterintuitive to hear the organ solo first, given the predominance of the piano in Van Hove’s work; but his abilities to shape materials through the vast timbres and dynamics a grand pipe organ offers, his knack for hinting at a dramatic arc, sprinkling clues to a possible resolution, and then veering into unexpected terrain is also at the heart of his piano playing. Hearing these qualities in the lesser-heard context is instructive, as well as being thoroughly engaging and periodically breathtaking. Much is made of the Paris-centric tradition of improvising church organists like Olivier Messiaen; but any survey of this rarified art without a discussion of Van Hove is woefully incomplete, this recording being the case in point.

The solo piano performance is equally compelling, reflective of how Van Hove draws the listener deeply into the real-time process of instant composition (a term that should at least occasionally be used in describing Van Hove’s work, as his improvisations tie together finely shaded threads with the aura of draftsmanship usually ascribed to conventional composers). Van Hove’s patience in developing his materials and the precision of his touch as the improvisation unfolds is central to his influence on pianists like Georg Graewe and Achim Kaufmann. In this sense, listening to Van Hove at this milestone has echoes of late-career solo recordings by earlier jazz stylists, in that the performances confirm not only the characteristics of his innovations, but the necessity of them in the evolution of the music. “Tour de force” is not usually applied to Van Hove’s improvisations, but it is fitting here.

Although Van Hove and Parker first played together on archetypal recordings like Brötzmann’s Machine Gun, they have subsequently collaborated only on an intermittent basis. Still, Parker’s regard for Van Hove led the saxophonist to issue the pianist’s highly recommended solo disc Journey on his psi imprint in 2008. The choice of Hamid Drake to make the trio has a bold, against-the-grain quality, in that in recent years Van Hove has worked with drummers who emphasize clatter for propulsion. Parker and Drake’s free jazz bearings on this disc-long performance has a magnetic pull on Van Hove; in turn, the pianist’s allergy to bombast keeps the focus taut throughout. Whether it is heard as an encore or a prelude to the solo discs, the trio performance will keep the listener glued from beginning to end.


Alexander Von Schlippenbach, Han Bennink & Peter Brötzmann                                 courtesy of Trost Records

Fifty Years After was recorded a half-century to the month after Machine Gun; both were made in Bremen. A slightly different band than before, though; Schlippenbach is a far more jazzcentric improviser than Van Hove, which reverberates through both Bennink and Brötzmann’s work, throughout. The steamroller 20-minute opening blow exemplifies how each of them distill the jazz histories of their respective instruments exultantly and furiously. The edge shifts from track to track, as Brötzmann switches axes, Bennink employs various disruptive gambits, and Schlippenbach jumps the borders between post-serialism and modern jazz. The lasting impression they make is one of rigor. Instead of having a jolly reunion, Brötzmann, Bennink and Schlippenbach double down on the fierce urgency of how they first articulated in the ‘60s, when the Cold War seemed like a permanent condition, and cultural upheaval spread throughout Europe. Fifty Years After confirms that this message remains essential and needed.

The release of these new collections are cause to revisit past work – including Schlippenbach’s The Living Music – and confirm that Free Music not only still lives, it thrives.
–Bill Shoemaker


New World

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