Olaf Ton
Leo CD LR 381

A whimsical, droll and comic German jazz combo may strike many as an oxymoron, especially since none of those adjectives first comes to mind when describing any type of band from either the former West or the former East Germany.

But not everyone has to be a slave to history and the melancholic streak that has infested the Teutonic artistic soul since at least the time of Goethe. Olaf Ton is that frisky combo, a barely three-year-old aggregation made up of five players under 30.

Performing the sort of bouncy, herky-jerky sounds we associate with Dutch or Italian improv merrymakers, collectively, the group members challenge our view of musicians from their country with this satisfying CD. Heck, you can literally hear the instruments laughing out loud on “Little Funny Olaf”, the (almost) title tune.

More to the point, from a jazz perspective, the twists and turns of the compositions prove that the creators are musically sophisticates as well as comic funsters. Want an American comparison? Try equating Olaf Ton with Steve Bernstein’s waggish, New York-based Sex Mob band.

This is most apparent on “Speicherbär”, (bad translation: “warehouse bar”), which sounds like the soundtrack for a 1950s set-in-America noir as imagined by a European. Beginning with a swinging bass intro by Michael Haves, that seems to have just oozed out of a beatnik coffee house, it continues with slinky bent notes from trumpeter Richard Koch, who has worked in reggae bands as well as in improv. Before long he’s combining tones with Haves — who has collaborated with dance companies — as if both are wearing berets as they stride along a murky, oil lamp-lit street. Soon they’re joined by the clicking cowbell and tap-dancing snare rhythms of drummer Christian Marien, who also works with a Klezmer-band, and a gargling plunger tone from Swiss-born trombonist Jérôme Bugnon, whose background encompasses dub, reggae and big band work.

Written by the trombonist, “Alonso morales” also has a retro feel with a jarring rhythm propelled by slap bass and shuffled rhythms from Marien’s wooden blocks. With his burred tone initially shadowed by the bassist, Bugnon concludes the tune with the plunger mute helping him produce some Bronx cheers. Earlier, the drummer pounds out a rhythm like an updated Chick Webb, and alto saxophonist Benjamin Weidekamp creates a fussy, slap-toned alto sax line that’s straight from a 1930s dance band. Still, his irregular vibrations turn progressively wider, screechier and fruitier as the tune progresses.

Weidekamp has worked with dance companies as well as top German improvisers like trombonist Conrad Bauer and saxophonist Frank Gratkowski. He wrote most of the other compositions, including the almost unpronounceable “Die halloumipolizei rettet das bikiniland”, an offbeat tango in shifting sections. On it, he gets to show off his wiggling clarinet prowess, until he returns to legato sax lines to mesh with Koch’s snapped off trumpet tones. Careening across the bar lines like a contingent of Keystone Kops, reconstituted as a cabaret pit band, the musicians keep up the carnival manner for almost 8½ minutes. Before the tango returns as the coda, the trumpeter purrs out chromatic tones and Marien exercises his cowbell.

So it goes for the remaining tunes, with revved up the tempos and high-stepping melodies showcasing tailgate trombone slurs and rooster crows, brass mouthpiece kisses, aviary reed squeaks and echoing small animal scratches, plus rim shots and what sounds like hand percussion hit with an Africanized wooden sticks. There’s even a point near the beginning when the five harmonize vocally for a bit, like a burlesque glee club.

When they conclude with “Einsteins dreams” (sic), complete with hard and heavy drumming; Roadrunner beeps from all the horns; smeared trombone slides; and brassy, flutter-tongued pre-modern Erskine Hawkins-like licks from the trumpeter, a good time has been had by all.

(Little) Olaf Ton has created a fascinating, memorable debut. Let’s see what he evolves into as he grows up.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Ranvik 2. Aller tage abend 3. Speicherbär 4. Die halloumipolizei rettet das bikiniland 5. Alonso morales 6. Little funny Olaf 7. Advocat van de hanen 8.Aufstellungsortproblem-felsen 9. Einsteins dreams

Personnel: Richard Koch (trumpet); Jérôme Bugnon (trombone); Benjamin Weidekamp (alto saxophone, flute, clarinet); Michael Haves (bass); Christian Marien (drums)