Live In Berlin
Soul Note SN 120069-2

Listening to this disc almost 20 years after it was recorded in a Berlin concert you can hear how much pianist Marilyn Crispell has changed — and remained the same — since that time.

Very much a product of the epoch, the band is performing a version of energy music, not unlike that practiced by tenor saxophonist John Coltrane’s quartet — one of her acknowledged influences — with Crispell in the McCoy Tyner or Alice Coltrane role and violinist Billy Bang taking on the Trane mantle. At the same time, having a violin as a solo voice brings up memories of those groups featuring fiddlers like Ramsey Ameen and Leroy Jenkins and led by Cecil Taylor, another Crispell totem.

That’s one way the pianist of today differs from the one of 20 years ago. The Taylor influences were a lot stronger in 1982. But even then, as when she embarks on a marathon solo in the midst of “ABC” you still note separation from Taylor. Crispell’s improvising is that much warmer, lush and romantic. You can definitely hear her bedrock classical training as well and use of a lot of right-handed chordal work. Overall, though, her touch is also much, much lighter than Taylor’s.

What is notable as well is how she — and by extension her bandmates — have become more conscious of space and silence since then. Throughout the nearly 46½ minute performance here, no one seems to stop playing for a minute, with everything done at double or triple speed.

Not that you’d want them to slow down. At the height of his early effervesce then, Bang is constantly on. Virtuosic in his way as Isaac Stern or Jascha Heifetz were in theirs, he spends most of his time exploring the stratosphere. Often creating tones that literally sound like saxophone smears, he’s a master of the speedy glissando, double and triple stopping as often as humanly possible. However, at one point, during a duet with bassist German Peter Kowald, he begins scratching his strings in such a way that it appears as if he’s ready to lead a hoedown.

Later on “Burundi” Bang starts the proceeds with an unaccompanied solo that suggests the sounds of paper bags exploding and tissue paper being torn shredded, then introduces a round robin of double stops, swing time and alternating bowing and string finger plucks. Could you expect any less from a man who was the linchpin of ensembles as different as Sun Ra’s Arkestra, the String Trio of New York and pioneer New Thing saxophonist Frank Lowe freebop quartet?

Kowald too brings heavy credentials to the session. The second most famous free improviser from Wuppertal, he had already played with the cream of European improvisers. Over his nearly 40-year history he has been in bands as large as Globe Unity Orchestra and as small as duos. More self-effacing than you would imagine, except for some great swathes of cello-like arco swoops on the first number, he mostly confines himself to producing a steady, almost traditionally jazzy, accompanying pulse.

Chief revelation here is American drummer John Betsch, who has been valuable part of saxophonist Steve Lacy’s different aggregations since 1989, and who also played with folks as different as New Thinger Archie Shepp, bluesman John Lee Hooker and folk rocker Tim Hardin. On “Burundi”, he almost stops the show with a spectacular yet quiet and unshowy drum display. Using his snare, toms, rims, cymbals almost equally, only rarely does he ratchets things up a notch with bass drum foot thumps.

Crispell, of course, more than holds her own. Still best known for a decades-long collaboration with Anthony Braxton, most famously as a member of his quartet a few years after this date, “ABC” is titled after that composer/multi-instrumentalist. Even at this early date, however, she was her own woman, fitting as easily in this free-for-all energy jam fest as with Braxton’s more complicated, cerebral scores. Always plowing forward she makes an impression with a modal interlude on the last tune, alternating treble suggestions with her own manner of sneaking into the bass keys for emphasis.

On “Chant” — like the other two numbers, her own composition — there’s a point where the bassist and drummer seem to fade into the background and she and Bang perform as if they were Heifetz and Vladimir Horowitz in recital. As the violinist races from one pitch and tempo to another, she come up with different shadings from her 88 keys. Together and apart simultaneously, each is a soloist, yet both are accompanists.

This disc has always had a reputation as one of Crispell and company’s early milestones. Historical listening does nothing to dispel that.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. ABC (for Anthony Braxton) 2. Chant 3. Burundi

Personnel: Billy Bang (violin); Marilyn Crispell (piano); Peter Kowald (bass); John Betsch (drums)