Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Alexander von Schlippenbach, Willisau 1976.                                                                 Gérard Rouy©2010

The Evolution of an American Perspective

The story of your life is not your life. It is your story – John Barth

My father spent a few formative years in Europe, including a memorable Christmas in the Ardennes. “They’re just like us,” he would say about Europeans, “except they’re different.” There is less folksy American reductivism in this assessment than meets the eye. Tens of millions of Americans of his generation heard European languages, ate European food and heard European music on a regular, if not daily basis. It is a conclusion based upon a degree of familiarity.

Similar, but not the same: That’s the essence of my initial reaction in 1978 to the first FMP albums I encountered – Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun and Manfred Schoof’s European Echoes – which were proffered to me by an abidingly reliable source as core documents of post-Coltrane jazz. At the time, I was thoroughly convinced that the epicenter of the music was the Midwest. Granted, by this time, there had been an era-shaping migration of higher-profile members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the Black Artists Group to New York, including the members of Art Ensemble of Chicago, who encapsulated the purview of post-Coltrane jazz for me with “Ancient to the Future.”  Yet, it was in the Midwest where both communities nurtured pan-idiomatic sensibilities in their internationally acclaimed members. This enabled composers to extrapolate serial and procedural-based compositional concepts found in the works of Boulez, Stockhausen and others. At the same time, these composers and improvisers also gave equal weight to popular and traditional African-American musical vernaculars to surprisingly provocative effect. Subsequently, my bottom line was a musician’s ability to throw down a palpable, serious-as-your-life sensibility that encompassed this vast, unprecedented repository of materials and methods, and shoulder the music forward.     

At first, it seemed that Brötzmann, Schoof and their cohorts were fanning the last embers of Fire Music, which didn’t exactly signify the future – a territory already granted to Anthony Braxton with well-orchestrated media fanfare –  but it was more than most Americans were doing. The passing of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler had left a vacuum, and precious few of the luminaries from the ‘60s were pointing the way ahead. Pharoah Sanders had devolved into a pied piper of soporific two-chord tunes. Archie Shepp was consumed with recapitulating the tenor tradition. And Sun Ra’s Arkestra was increasingly reliant on Fletcher Henderson tunes. However, the problem with a vacuum is that anything can fill it; and the fact that Europeans were filling it with such fury presented a quandary, as the spiritual agenda of the African-American jazz avant-garde was absent, generally, and arguably negated by Machine Gun.

Understanding the impetus for the music was initially complicated by the album’s messaging. Schoof wanted to project a European identity with his half-hour work for large ensemble, for which he assembled a virtual lowya jerga of improvisers from a half-dozen countries. However, its title signaled somewhat the opposite; that the music was essentially a reflection of American free jazz – a continental Ascension, if you will. Brötzmann’s use of drawn, mannequin-like machine gunners and an English-language dictionary entry in his cover design pointed towards a complex of issues in post-war German arts and letters for which reading The Tin Drum or watching Fear Eats the Soul was insufficient preparation.  On paper, the messages were dissonant, with Brötzmann’s blunt, if opaque aggression at seemingly fundamental odds with Schoof’s open-armed universalism.    

This disconnect was reconciled through the music itself. Both albums were explosive by any standard; the playing was as surefooted as it was fervent; and the occasional Coltranish contour and Taylor-like cluster that rose from the din tethered, if only tentatively, the music to the argument that free jazz and its successors were validations of a dialectical jazz tradition, not repudiations. This constituted the “similar” part of the equation. I identified what was “different” as “edge.” Edge is related to swing in that both are rooted in the fusion of attack and rhythm, and are intended to excite the listener. There are episodes in both recordings where the edge is swing-rooted in a manner similar to Taylor’s tactic of compression and release, an acceleration and intensification of materials that establishes a new rhythmic baseline. More often, however, intensity trumps forward motion on both recordings, which is where edge fully presents as an end in itself. 

Although this was the crux of what was glaringly new on both albums, Schoof also made the bold move of recruiting three pianists, three bassists, and two drummers for his 16-piece ensemble, which had a startling structural impact on the piece. In general terms, “European Echoes” resembled “Ascension” in that it alternated solos and short tuttis, a form Globe Unity Orchestra periodically returned to over the decades (12 of the musicians have participated in Globe Unity Orchestra, including its leader, Alexander von Schlippenbach). However, the mid-section of the piece veered off the template in a significant way, as Schoof allotted approximately a third of the performance to trios and duos for the traditional rhythm section instruments  The passage for three pianos (played by Schlippenbach, Irène Schweizer and Fred Van Hove) had the bristle of a Nancarrow scroll; despite its ferocity, drummers Han Bennink and Pierre Favre’s duet reflected very deep listening; and the trio by bassists Arjen Gorter, Peter Kowald and Buschi Niebergall was a brilliant mesh of textures. This gave the piece a distinctive shape and signaled a new equality among instruments in free music, which was to date a horn-dominated music.

Still, my Amercentricity was relatively unscathed by European Echoes and Machine Gun. They did begin to fill in my blotchy picture of European free music, the foreground of which was dominated by The Topography of the Lungs and New Acoustic Swing Duo. The FMPs did reinforce my nebulous sense that Bennink and Evan Parker, who played on both Schoof and Brötzmann’s albums, Derek Bailey, who takes the first solo on European Echoes, and Willem Breuker, who rounded out the three-tenor front line on Machine Gun and penned the album’s concluding piece, “Music for Han Bennink,” were leading figures in this community. Yet, I was not persuaded that either recording could serve as a credo for a new movement, one that distilled what was contemporary in jazz and then introduced an aesthetic that has no overt connection with the celebrated contemporary jazz values. That was the great achievement of Roscoe Mitchell’s 1966 Delmark debut, Sound.  The album’s opening piece, “Ornette,” was not simply an honorific; instead, Ornette Coleman’s music framed Mitchell’s commentary on the central role of virtuosity and its projection of energy in contemporary jazz. With “The Little Suite” and the title piece, Mitchell articulated an aesthetic predicated not on the primacy of virtuosity, but of sounds co-existing in space. To this end, Mitchell brought a vast array of unorthodox instruments into the music (many were quickly brought under the umbrella of “little instruments”); he also created strangely iridescent events like the harmonica and gourd duet on “The Little Suite” and used the new idiom to reiterate the primal tension between sounds and silence on “Sound.”  Mitchell ushered in a new paradigm for jazz, one that was still going strong a dozen years later.

The equality of every sound; the double-edged use of jazz vernaculars; event-based structures: these are all aspects of what Mitchell brought to Sound and his subsequent music in his own projects and with Art Ensemble of Chicago. And, they were in ample supply on the next FMP I encountered – Schlippenbach’s The Living Music. What immediately struck me about this recording what that I wasn’t immediately struck by Brötzmann’s hail of bullets or Schoof’s opening salvo. Schlippenbach opened the proceedings with several minutes of free rubato polyphony, punctuated by moments of silence just long enough to be suspenseful. This structure prompted a more ruminative than expected approach from the four horn players – Brötzmann, Schoof, trombonist Paul Rutherford (who also performed on European Echoes) and bass clarinetist Michel Pilz. Additionally, Schlippenbach and Bennink’s use of the piano interior, orchestral chimes, mallet percussion and kalimba reinforced the passage’s tone with well-placed dollops of vivid color. When Bennink begins to turn the heat up approximately half-way through the nearly 15-minute performance, it exuded organic purpose rather than reflexive assault. This ignited a searing solo by Pilz, one that supports the notion of him being the missing link between Eric Dolphy and Rudi Mahall. As the rest of the septet join the fray, however, it becomes apparent that Bennink is the soloist and the other musicians are comping him. The well-calibrated wind-down was another indication that this was a well-drafted composition.  

Setting the tone for the entire album was not one of the virtues of “The Living Music,” however. It did not prepare me for what followed. Initially, the pianist’s “Into the Staggerin’” was surprisingly retro in comparison. In part, the title may have referred to the septet’s enunciation of the opening angular lines, then a fairly widespread practice in avant-garde jazz, as well as the swagger of the ensuing riff. After several iterations, the horn embellishments frayed the riff until it unraveled into high-energy polyphony. Brötzmann emerged from the pack, screaming his guts out; however, the rhythm section (rounded out by bassist Buschi Niebergall) abruptly laid out, leaving the saxophonist without a net. This brief unaccompanied solo not only exemplified Brötzmann’s withering intensity, but it also showcased his command of his axe as he linked rhythmic cells with impressive reed and breath control. Brötzmann’s solo culminated with a repeated triplet-based phrase, the last note of which he altered with ascending pitches and contrasting textures until he simply stopped. Since the first part of “The Living Music” was dotted with pregnant pauses, it was momentarily unclear whether the ensuing theme – a boisterous repeated phrase that would easily fit into a Frank Lowe album – was a continuation of Schlippenbach’s piece or the beginning of Schoof’s side-ending “Wave.” It was the latter, which further fueled my impression that Schlippenbach was a daring composer; not only did he have the audacity to end a piece with Brötzmann’s jarring solo, far afield from where it began, he skillfully sequenced his composition with Schoof’s, using the between-tracks silence to join the two pieces.

The A side of The Living Music was as well-shaped as any Blue Note LP side, setting a high bar for the B side. Schlippenbach’s “Tower” is an unlikely opener. Stylistically, the unaccompanied piano introduction was closer to Randy Weston’s approach to Ellington than the young Taylor’s, as Schlippenbach mixes cascading runs and big, declarative chords. The pensive, chromatic ensemble also has something of the Ducal tinge I heard in Julius Hemphill’s writing. Brötzmann’s obbligato lines were particularly effective at churning Schlippenbach’s sepia tones into darker hues. The ensemble proved to be an excellent framing device for blistering solos by the tenor saxophonist, who leaned more heavily on Coltrane and Sanders’ approach than usual, and the pianist, who stays out of the long shadows of Taylor and McCoy Tyner. Brötzmann’s “Lollopalooza” is a slyly constructed piece. The first half is dedicated to a Bennink solo in which the drummer deftly dampened drum heads and cymbals to create energetic, but low-intensity rhythms. The septet then unexpectedly launched a pungent, shambling reading of “Das Lied der Deutschen” that ultimately erupts with immense force. Although national anthems and martial music were already embedded into the satire of the jazz avant-garde, internationally, this performance was strangely lacerating and uplifting at the same time. Again, the between-tracks silence was employed to set up the rousing finale, Schoof’s “Past Time.” Only a split second separates the gong that ends “Lollopalooza” and the scorching, Bennink-fueled, modal bop-inflected Schoof solo that signals the ensemble finale, a tricky stop-start line that starts to soar, turns on a dime, and then throw a few jabs before taking off again. Structurally, “Past Time” served a similar function as “40M” on Braxton’s Five Pieces 1975, its dazzling display of old-school jazz pyrotechnics muffling the doubters, including me. 

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By now, readers have noticed numerous comparisons to American musicians and recordings, some of which were made years after the FMPs were first issued. This speaks to a simple reality that eludes many Europeans when they grouse about Americans’ lack of knowledge about European jazz: We were in a vacuum. The records were all but impossible to find in shops and it was a supreme hassle to get an international money order, a risk to put it into the post, and a gnawing two-month wait for the cheque to clear, the order to ship and the pick-up notice to be placed in a mailbox in rural Maryland. Additionally, there was no discussion about artists like Brötzmann in the North American press, save Coda, for which an American had to wait almost as long as a parcel of LPs from London or Berlin. I was lucky – there was someone I could reach with a local phone call who was seriously on the case. Even though the vacuum was breached, getting up to speed on European free music was a disc-by-disc proposition.

Subsequently, my articulation of the scope of an individual’s activities, how it related to his colleagues’, and how all of this stood up to the party lines drawn in the press and the stereotypes European slung at each other – “the English sickness” is on y’all – was largely driven by what I heard and read first. Granted, this process reflected little to no evolution on my part since I was a little kid discovering my folks’ 78s, guided by my dad’s dictum on Swing bands – “If you want to hear great musicians, it’s Basie or Ellington; but, if you want to dance, it’s Lunceford” – an elegant acknowledgement of jazz’s divergent virtues. I soon realized that European free music had something of the same binary choice: If you wanted to hear boldly conceived, expertly constructed music, go with Schlippenbach. This was reinforced by encountering Payan, Schlippenbach’s largely ignored solo album recorded in ’72 for Enja. By the grace of a curious, arguably nonsensical mid-‘70s licensing agreement with Audiofidelity, the album was ubiquitous  in US cut-out bins almost instantly. Payan spans scintillating fugues, knotty tone rows and dense clusters. This buttressed my sense that Schlippenbach had a panoramic view of contemporary currents; even though it would be years before I learned of his studies with Bernd Alois Zimmermann, it was obvious that the pianist was as steeped in early and mid 20th Century classical music as his was in jazz, and that he was joining the two traditions to expand the terms of engagement between composition and improvisation.

On the other hand, if you just wanted to burn down the house, Brötzmann was the man. Arguably, Bennink was the accelerant; but Brötzmann was the detonator – he could even set off Albert Mangelsdorff, the palatable front man for state-sanctioned jazz. Heard in close proximity with the trio’s the-title-says-it-all Balls (1970), the three LPs featuring Brötzmann/Van Hove/Bennink and the established trombonist – Elements, Coucouss de la Mauresque and The End, all recorded in ’71 – sharpened my sense that Brötzmann was the agent of something akin to creative destruction, the economic phenomenon where outside, unanticipated innovation turns corporate powerhouses into husks, their market-dominating products antiquated almost overnight. The real coup in this endeavor was enlisting Mangelsdorff, who plays with a convert’s zeal; his smears, snorts and roars are as wrenching and menacing as Brötzmann’s reed-splitting screams.

This is where edge will do you better than anything. It knows no compromise; it’s context-resistant. There’s no pawning it off in terms of what we now call cultural studies. Any commentary beyond “Fuck, Yeah!” is superfluous. There’s nothing to do but let it hit you between the ears. However, the exhilarating edge of their rampages diverted attention away from the passages shaped by Third World percussion and the throat-singing tinge of Mangelsdorff’s polyphonics, as well as the interludes where Van Hove’s playing and writing evoke 19th Century Romanticism and the then-emergent Minimalism. But, they don’t last long enough to register as more than lulls between storms; they are secondary to the performances, not determinative.

The sense of proportionality and design Schlippenbach brought to The Living Music was not part of Brötzmann’s agenda, and arguably at odds with it. Additionally, edge in Brötzmann’s music is an expression of an ideological purity that derails the appositional relationship between edge and swing suggested by The Living Music and the first recordings by Schlippenbach’s Trio and Quartet – Pakistani Pomade and Three Nails Left. Whereas edge was compartmentalized on the septet album, it was co-opted by Schlippenbach’s small groups. Schlippenbach and Parker’s respective, well-documented roots in the hard-driving jazz of the late ‘50s and early ‘60a African-American avant-garde is central to this. There’s a straight line from the jabbed chords of the early Taylor and Mal Waldron to Schlippenbach’s; it is the most metronomic element in the units’ music. Certainly, it tacks the rhythms of Parker’s improvisations; he is more the tough tenor with Schlippenbach than in other settings during the period. Paul Lovens did not bring conventional jazz drumming chops to the proceedings, nor did he approximate Sunny Murray’s sound or shattering glass or Milford Graves’ holistic rhythms. Instead, his extremely quick reflexes allowed him to infuse rhythmic information into the music without explicit beats or patterns, an approach that remains distinctly his own. Something of the same can be said of Kowald when he joined the group. In the exposition of their materials, the rhythmic momentum of Schlippenbach’s Trio and Quartet was close enough for jazz – call it swing without the 1. Edge vividly presented itself in the development of materials through the intensification of attack and texture. Yet, it was integrated into Schlippenbach’s music; while it was perhaps the most contemporary feature of his music at the time, it was part of a larger conception of small-group improvisation.

Subsequently, these early FMP albums hard-wired something analogous to my father’s listening/dancing approach to Swing bands into my thinking about European Improvised Music. In my earliest reviews for Coda in 1980 of recordings like A European Proposal (Horo) – two platters of improvisations by Bennink, Misha Mengelberg, Rutherford and Mario Schiano – jazz-fluent virtuosity and design were the metrics. Schlippenbach’s approach prevailed.

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Americans have been vigorously critiquing European Improvised Music for more than thirty years, and have authored some of the most authoritative books on the subject. While there was consensus from the outset among US critics on broad issues about the legitimacy of the music, its major figures, and its European narrative, there was always a diversity of opinion about how to weigh the accomplishments of artists within their respective communities and within a continental context. I am convinced this diversity was partially created by the spotty dissemination of the music in the US during the late ‘70s. Regardless, these differences are real and their substance must be understood to fully appreciate the fallacy of The American Perspective.

Mike Heffley’s Northern Sun/Southern Moon: Europe’s Reinvention of Jazz (2005; Yale University Press) and Kevin Whitehead’s New Dutch Swing (1998; Billboard Books) are two books I heartily recommend. Both are thoroughly researched and reported, and their respective theses are carefully crafted. However, I disagree with their assessments of specific musicians, whose work I find to be more complex and nuanced, or more determinative to the development of their respective communities. For example: Maarten Altena is a more central figure in my take on the evolution of Dutch music than Whitehead’s. Granted, by the time Whitehead reported the book in the second half of the‘90s, the bassist-cellist had all but retired from performing and had converted the Maarten Altena Ensemble, once a hot house for improvisers like Mark Charig, Michael Moore and Wolter Wierbos, into a contemporary repertory chamber group, one decreasingly dependent on its namesake’s output to boot. Yet, Altena – the sideman to Dexter Gordon and Marion Brown; the free improviser and conceptualist who worked with actors and recorded a solo album with a cast on both his broken left arm and the neck of the bass; the leader who pooled such like-minded composers-improvisers as Maurice Horsthuis and Paul Termos into ensembles who exemplified the more austere and astringent strains of new Dutch music – personifies as much as anyone the equation that appears above the title on the book’s dust jacket: “Jazz + Classical Music + Absurdism =.”  Whitehead discusses Altena in the book’s next to last chapter, entitled “Side Exit.” It is a fair, insightful way to discuss an artist beyond category, one detaching, if not already detached from the scene Whitehead so vividly chronicles; however, putting Altena in the thick of the narrative from the ‘60s through the ‘80s strengthens the case for Dutch dynamism. And while we’re testifying about FMPs, can I get a witness for Two Making a Triangle, Altena and Kowald’s ’82 duo album?

Heffley and I differ on Schlippenbach. Although it is consonant with my initial impressions of their work, Heffley’s construct, represented by two successive sub-chapter headings – Peter Brötzmann (Improvisation) and Alexander von Schlippenbach (Composition) – doesn’t work for me. Additionally, Heffley’s case for Schlippenbach the composer rests too heavily on the pianist’s work with Globe Unity Orchestra. The inceptive 1966 composition is unquestionably a watershed for its amalgamation of jazz and contemporary music (attributable to his studies with Zimmermann), an approach that is further fleshed out in the versions collected in Globe Unity ’67 & ’70 (Atavistic). Yet, Schlippenbach’s only other GUO piece of mantle-conferring merit is the title composition from Hamburg, ’74, the brilliantly conceived, seven-part satiric oratorio that promotes unique exchanges between the improvising orchestra and a radio broadcast chorus. The rest of Schlippenbach’s pieces recorded by the orchestra in the so-called “Wuppertal Period” are minor (In his ’91 notes to 20th Anniversary, Schlippenbach cites the Kowald-penned Jahrmarkt/Local Fair [1975-6; Po Torch] as the most significant recording of this phase of the orchestra’s occasionally tumultuous history).

Nevertheless, Heffley goes into some detail about Schlippenbach’s contributions as composer and arranger to Live in Wuppertal, the 1973 recording that commences with Schlippenbach’s orchestration of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” and is followed by several of his own compositions. Heffley does not make a few seemingly slim, but actually vital connections between these pieces and an intriguing pair of Schlippenbach’s recordings that are not included in Heffley’s discography: Payan and Jelly Roll, the 1980 RAI-commission for its big band and a Schlippenbach-selected quintet. The light these albums bring to Schlippenbach’s sensibility is critical for the fullest advocacy of his credentials as a composer. Heffley cites the Balkan rhythms and scales employed on both “Payan,” the album’s second track, and, two tracks later, “Yarrak;” yet, he doesn’t mention their prior incarnations on the ’72 solo album. The solo versions have locomotive rhythms that underscore Schlippenbach’s connection to a jazz tradition tap-rooted in Morton; the latter has a virtuosic left-hand part that created an eight-to-the-bar feel that rolls inside the odd meter.

In his notes to Jelly Roll, Schlippenbach wrote that his priority was “to reflect the richness of movement of the ‘rolling lines’ inside the sections,” which he manages to extract from both the shambling GUO and the polished RAI Big Band. This quality was already present in compositions like “Into the Staggerin’,” from The Living Music and would be prominent in later GUO pieces like “Boa” from Compositions (1979; JAPO), as well as compositions penned for Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra. In his notes to the BCJO’s 1993 recording The Morlocks and other pieces, Schlippenbach stated that his goal for the title piece was to create waves of movement throughout the orchestra, employing ostinati that “after numerous repetitions, continue with improvisation, or to be more exact variational shifts, which – ideally – would overlap one another and thus intensify the impression.”

Schlippenbach arrived at a similar, elegant middle ground between composition and improvisation with his Trio; arguably, Kowald and, in the early ‘80s, Alan Silva were appendixes in this regard. Both Parker and Schlippenbach are motive-centric improvisers; they have respective starting points and trajectories, and they closely listen to the other in the development of their materials. Lovens unerringly finds the rolling lines between Schlippenbach and Parker; darting around his unorthodox kit, he alternately highlights rhythms and pushes against them, an intrinsically fragmentary approach unique in its ability to cohere an improvising ensemble. It is difficult to read Schlippenbach on composition and not hear how it applies to this Free Jazz setting. And, given its continuous 40-year run, I regard the Trio to be the best brief for Schlippenbach’s art in its totality.  

Though it has evolved and deepened over the decades, my take on Schlippenbach remains predicated on the two albums I heard first: The Living Music and Payan.

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For a journalist, the first interview with an exponent of a school or pool of musicians can determine his or her thinking about the music even more than the first recordings he or she hears. That is certainly true in my case. My interview with Fred Van Hove in October 1980 irrevocably broadened my perspective about European Free Improvisation, an ongoing process that the published record accurately represents. It is symptomatic of the times’ snail-paced dissemination of media that the interview ran in Issue 180 of Coda, a full year later.

This essay will be published as part of FMP - in Retrospect (FMP-Publishing; Borken, Germany), a book and 12 CDs presented in a 31 x 31cm box.

Guelph Jazz Festival Sept. 8-12, 2010

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