SOMMER/KASSAP/LEVALLET

BIB
FMP CD 51

Arguably one of the most impressive — and certainly one of the longest lasting and least bellicostic — German-French collaboration of the mid-20th century, BIB harkens back to a time when trans-border musical groups combos were a lot more common than economic or political ones.

Recorded a decade ago at Berlin’s Workshop Freie Musik, the CD features almost 52 minutes of instant composition by two French players and a drummer who had just recently stopped being an East German. Despite walls and ideologies, the trio had actually got together about 10 years before that and exists to this day.

Most prominent of the group, because of his flamboyant playing along with his impeccable musicianship, is percussionist Günter Sommer. Despite a base in the former GDR, he managed to combine forces at various time with Americans like trumpeter Leo Smith and pianist Cecil Taylor, Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer and West Germans like saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and bassist Peter Kowald.

As self-effacing as Sommer is showy — at least on the evidence of his work on the eight selections here — bassist Didier Levallet has combined proto and anti-establishment stances during his long career. At one point he was part of the Outlaws in Jazz group with saxophonist Daunik Lazro, trombonist Yves Robert and the late American drummer Denis Charles. But from 1997 to 2000 he was director of the French National Jazz Orchestra.

Resembling a prototypical 1960s hippie with his afro and colorful tee shirts, contrasted with the shirt-sleeved, short-haired other players, woodwind player Sylvain Kassap has been a longtime member of the Zhivaro collective along with Levallet. Someone who also writes music for films, TV, theatre and dance, his playing partners have included American saxophonist Sam Rivers, British saxophonist John Surman, Turkish singer Okay Temiz and French guitarist Noël Akchoté.

On this date the clearest expression of the trio teamwork comes on “Jimmi (sic)’s Ghost” and “Three for the festival and one for Roland”, tunes that follow one another without pause, adding up to almost 17½ minutes of exceptional EuroImprov. Despite the misspelled Hendrix-tribute title, the first piece with Kassap blowing in unison on a couple of horns actually more resembles the advances of reedist Rahssan Roland Kirk, to whom the second tune pays homage. With a joyful, swinging theme advanced by rumbling drums and arco bass, the Mediterranean double reed history is also suggested.

Introduced with a impromptu verbal explosion and percussion attack from Sommer, the second piece soon finds Kassap curling around the theme with snaky soprano lines. Turning to split tones, the saxist sounds more notes than one as a time, then honks in the soprano’s highest range — sopranino? — until he’s matched by a suddenly non-diffident Levallet, who strums out whole notes and bow slices with the same aplomb. At one point the bassist seems to be making short verbal and vocal witticisms as his bow hits the strings so that you’d swear dialogue was being mouthed.

Kassap’s reed basement dips, nasal, raven-like cries and throaty growls on bass clarinet are immediately met with Sommer bringing forth his collection of windchimes, gongs and bells and using his mallets on all of them. That is when he isn’t rolling out steady drumbeats, going on bomb raids with the bass drum, or sounding rim shots or stick-upon-stick percussion. In retaliation, the reedist resorts to tongue-slaps for a boffo finish.

BIB — translation or meaning unclear — is a democratic session in the sense that there’s no sense of anyone of the three being the front man, with the other two backing him. Yet with the bassist prepared to play symbolic second fiddle, even Kassap’s dual saxes and ability to produce a vaudeville-like, fruity, shaking trills have the same relation to Sommer’s antics as a cerebral nightclub comic would to a flamboyant, costumed variety show headliner.

Should the saxman morph his mainstream tenor smears into multiphonics, Sommer, producing much more than a simple jazz-like pulse, comes up with car horn claxons and what appears to be Arabic or Native Indian war whoops. When Kassap spins out what sound like learned conservatory clarinet stylings, then Sommer takes the tune out of the concert hall and along to the lone prairie with some plaintive mouth organ sonorities. And at the instant when a muted clarinet tone unexpectedly ascends then descends the scale, the percussionist — an exercise in perpetual motion — will counter with pealing bells, quivering maracas, military march time or the final ping of a cymbal.

Most of the time, French champagne and German wurst may not be an ideal meal combination, but the cultural mixture served up on BIB unquestionably makes palatable musical fare here.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Von Dakinis und Anderen Göttinnen 2. Primeur 3. Auf dem Weg zur Alpe Laguz 4. Pastouron-pastourende 5. Jimmi’s Ghost 6. Three for the festival and one for Roland 7. Trio für Maïté 8. Vertreibung der Dibbuks

Personnel: Sylvain Kassap (soprano and tenor saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet); Didier Levallet (bass); Günter Sommer (drums, percussion)