Between Heaven And Earth
Intakt CD 079

Strangely prophetic in its title, BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH, is the second and final CD of this particular trio, recorded about 10 months before the sudden death of bassist Peter Kowald at 58.

It was only one of the many projects involving the peripatetic bassist, who over the years had expanded his reach from being a German Free Jazz player to someone as comfortable playing with Asian traditional instrumentalists as American downtowners. But in the mixed-up mosaic of Continental politics, this German trio was unique on its own.

That’s because its other two members — trombonist Conrad Bauer and percussionist Günter Sommer — were East German improvisers. Long before the Berlin Wall came down, Kowald made it a point not only to play with his countrymen in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), but he arranged through quasi-official channels to regularly “import” the drummer to be part of his band on European and Japanese dates.

Altruism was coupled with actuality, for in the trombonist and drummer he had two of the best musicians extant in the GDR — and elsewhere. Both members of the experimental ZentralQuartet, Bauer who here combines a sly gutbucket tone with more sophisticated stylings, had also been a members of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra. Sommer has the sense of humor and sometimes-offbeat instrumental palate that resembles the work of Han Bennink. His main Western contact has been Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer.

Well-recorded in a Zürich, this bittersweet reunion after a decade’s separation is almost appropriately restrained. But the muted outlook has more to do with the percussionist’s harnessed playing than any portend of what would happen months hence. Plus each man contributes mightily to the proceedings.

With a pronounced lip and tongue vibrato Bauer can create in both post-modern and pre-modern styles. For the former, sometimes dipping into bass trombone territory he showcases droning pedal point, or snarls notes from his throat in such a way that a combination of that and slide positions mirror the elasticity of a saxophone. Other times he goes higher into hunter’s horn territory.

As for the latter, when a tune like “Playing” arrives, he intensified his raucous tone by screwing a bucket or cup mute into his bell and pushing out a Jack Teagarden- style burr. Kowald and Sommer still act like a standard, modern jazz rhythm section so he follows this with the coloration of sharp slide notes. Imagine a J.J. Johnson with shorter arms.

Besides producing a waking tone, the bassist can create a drone all by himself. That is when he isn’t sliding out some measured tones with his bow or trilling with his fingers on the strings. On “Waiting For” among the bell ringing from Sommer’s kit, you can hear the bass rumble turn to screeching, daxophone-like tones, then sawing away in higher registers. “And Playing Again” even finds him dipping into semi-classical polish for a time, while the four square rhythm he adds to “Travelling Again” makes it sound as if he’s using an electric bass.

The percussionist rocks with the best of them on that tune and shows off his jazz-appropriate press roll and sizzle cymbal work elsewhere. But he definitely doesn’t confine himself to the standard kit. Or if he does, he makes it sound differently. Right at the beginning, he introduces “Being Born” with an extended Jew’s harp twang. On “Suffering” he appears to be using a xylophone to counter Bauer’s gutbucket blats and Kowald’s speedy plinks, and on “Travelling” uses his tom toms to produce a Native American Indian-style beat at the end.

One shouldn’t sell his quirkiness short however. Interspersed among cowbell smacks, ride cymbals hits and bass pedal drum accents are a few vocalized screams and what sound suspiciously like garbage can lids being stroked. All this is going on as he keeps changing tempo. And what about the sound that interrupts Bauer’s quasi-romantic trombone and Kowald’s swirling pizz on “Looking Out”? Surely the drummer is manipulating a tambora, not finessing a bolo bat.

All good things must come to and end, as did this trio. At least it left us a keepsake in the shape of this impressive CD.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Being born 2. Wondering 3. Waiting for 4. Fighting 5. Looking out 6. Travelling 7. Loving 8. Suffering 9. Playing 10. And playing again 11. Travelling again

Personnel: Conrad Bauer (trombone); Peter Kowald (bass); Günter Sommer (drums)