GÜNTER HEINZ/LOU GRASSI

Live in Wuppertal
Alea 2001-01

Forget Esperanto, its improvisation that has now become the world language — at least as far as musicians are concerned. What’s more, as players in other countries become as fluent in improv as their native (musical) tongue, the neo-colonial idea of Americans going to foreign location to only use the locals as sidemen has become as passé as the sun never setting on the British Empire.

Instead non-American and Americans now form cooperative groups, with each performer on equal footing. Case in point is this duo featuring New Jersey-based percussionist Lou Grassi and German trombonist Günter Heinz, recorded late in 2000 in a gallery in Wuppertal, which also happens to be the home town of bassist Peter Kowald and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann.

It’s doubtful that either of those Free Jazz masters was part of the enthusiastic German audience for these performances, but if they had been, they would have seen two musicians comfortably working in the improv tradition they earlier helped codify.

No youngsters, Grassi 54, and Heinz 48, arrived at this transatlantic partnership from different routes. A versatile musician who prides himself on playing everything from Dixieland to Energy music, Grassi leads his own Po band and has worked with the likes of pianist Burton Green, Arkestra leader and alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, bassist William Parker and singer Sheila Jordan. Conversely, Zeitz-born Heinz, who is an academically trained mathematician as well as a musician, has restricted his work to the so-called avant-garde. Still his playing here is impressive enough to be compared to that of other German ‘bone probers like Albert Mangelsdorff and the Bauer brothers.

Both men obviously hit it off, for this fine CD was recorded during a mini tour of Germany embarked on by the two, less than nine month after they first played together in New York. On the last three numbers they’re joined by guitarist Peter Worringer, 38, who adds some mechanical and electronically-tinged sounds he developed with noise and experimental combos.

On their own, the two don’t really have need of a chordal instrument, since they create enough variety with the emptying of Grassi’s percussion bag and Heinz’s extended technique and occasional use of the flute and the Turkish zurna. The zurna looks like a wooden trumpet, but with a reed, a tubular body and finger holes it’s played like a flute.

Using circular breathing Heinz gets a constantly reverberating whine from it on “Look Before You Leap”, while Grassi appears to be clanking small bells and hand cymbals plus cow bells and wood blocks for texture. Creating what seems to be a meeting of the primitive and modern on “For Those Who Know”, the zurna’s whistle meshes with the drummer’s African-style shaken percussion and boomeranging astral vibrations. When Grassi switches to his regular kit, Heniz uses the trombone to overblow long lines, often splitting into two tones at once. Morphing his instrument into an alp horn on “One of These Kinds” the trombonist slurs and growls to distort his tones into the stratosphere, while Grassi uses brushes to roll around rhythms on his snare and toms.

In trio formation, Worringer somehow manages to make his axe suggest computer laptop pulses, a mechanical dobro or a jet plane accelerating. Other times it seems as if a heavy metal soloist has wandered into the club for a split second staccato attack, or that small animals are scratching away at the fret board. Although it’s as if he’s working on a parallel course of electronic connections on his three numbers, there are times he intersects with the other two. Pushing the drummer to assert himself on “Wet Night”, at one point he forces Grassi become uncharacteristically bombastic, while Heinz follows a singular path, slurring notes from the top of the ‘bone’s range, reverberating them from its bottom, or even spitting out a tiny melody. He may not be Tricky Sam Nanton, but he certainly references the Ellington growl specialist more than any bloodless beboper.

One of the most successful examples of American-German cooperation sine NATO, the end result here is as memorable as it is masterful.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Danger On The Stairs 2. Look Before You Leap 3. One of These Kinds 4. For Those Who Know 5. Watch These Steps 6. Wet Night 7. By Itself 8. Leaving Tomorrow

Personnel: Günter Heinz (trombones, flute, zurna); Peter Worringer (guitar [tracks 6 - 8]); Lou Grassi (percussion, drums)