BAUER/GUMPERT/PETROWASKY/SOMMER

Zentralquartett
Intakt CD 069

Saying this is an outstanding disc by an all star group of East German improvisers may sound like faint praise to the American-centred jazz world. But in truth, just as the music long ago became a universal language, so its major practitioners are no longer born under The Star Spangled Banner.

East German jazz may still sound like an oxymoron, when the average Westerner identifies the former German Democratic Republic with the Berlin wall and a bleak and isolated neo-Stalinist regime. But implicit in the former Socialist state was government support for conservatories and small clubs that gave musicians of all stripes a place to play.

Over the years as well, East German improvisers like these gravitated towards the free music that allowed them to play without symbolically having American models standing on their shoulders. Anyone hearing this disc, initially recorded in 1990, will concede that more than a decade ago, each man had forged a unique, individual style that takes second place to no other practitioner. Not only that, but the tunes speed along with the sort of rhythm that would give them clear sailing on an autobahn or a place in the books of any post-bopper or soul-jazzman like Cannonball Adderley.

Long time EuroImprov followers will no doubt recognize trombonist Conrad Bauer for the time he spent in the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and the unique Doppelmoppel quartet he leads with another trombonist and two guitarists. Percussionist Günter Sommer has, over the years, partnered such folk as American trumpeter Leo Smith, Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer and German bassist Peter Kowald. Oldest of the bunch — born in 1933 — reedist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky put in decades of experience with George Gruntz's Concert Jazz Band and the Globe Unity Orchestra. All three also worked extensively in groups led by the band's fourth member, pianist/composer Ulrich Gumpert.

Judging from Gumpert's writing, somehow a classically-trained German born in Jena in 1945 has managed to internalize the blues notes and gospel feeling that's supposed to be an American's birthright. Among his non-Teutonic playing partners have been British drummer Tony Oxley and American saxophonist Steve Lacy.

At the same time, the bouncy, swinging melodies that make up most of this disc could be termed avant garde by only the most hidebound neo con. More than just heads to blow on, these tunes have definite beginnings, ends and middles, challenging the soloists while they have fun playing them.

Bauer's "Sitz-und Auf Stück" for instance, has a theme that sounds like a lost Thelonious Monk number, and which contrasts long-limbed trombone smears with conga drumming, bird whistles and kazoo sounds from Sommer. At one point Petrowsky brings out his airy classical flute, but mostly he sticks to an aviary-high saxophone tone that appears to be one part Charlie Parker to two parts Ornette Coleman. On Gumpert's out-and-out rocker "Der alte Göttinger", however, the saxophonist produces some Earl Bostic-style intonation, while Bauer's blats and snorts extends 1960s New Thing slide rules, and the pianist pumps out a steady shuffle rhythm.

On "Hit Piece No. 8" the four come out with a rollicking foot tapper that sounds as if all it needs is a vocal from Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson to literally live up to the title. Gumpert's asides constantly shift from gospel lines to blues riffs to pounding stride excursions, keeping the beat moving along with Sommer as the two horns explore the upper registers before unveiling some double time riffing.

"Advent" is more of the same, combining all the best elements of the Bo Diddley beat, Ray Charles' gospelish blues and take-no-prisoners energy music, while "Synoposis" lets the pianist explore his free side with darting right handed keyboard feints, repetitions and a piledriver attack.

Finally, the entente between the sacred and the profane reaches its apogee on the appropriately titled "Hymnus 3", where Gumpert's quasi-impressionistic intro soon morph into him pumping out churchy chords as Bauer's revival meeting 'bone blasts are partnered by Petrowsky's altissimo saxophone flights.

East German jazz should never sound like an odd or lesser description after hearing this CD. Find out for yourself.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Synopsis 2. Advent 3. Hit Piece No. 8 4. Sitz-und Auf Stück 5. Der alte Göttinger 6. Ohne Illusion 7. Fischlandlied 8. Hymnus 3 9. Der Angenehme diser Welt

Personnel: Conrad Bauer (trombone); Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky (alto saxophone, clarinet, flute); Ulrich Gumpert (piano); Günter Sommer (drums, percussion)