SVEN-ÅKE JOHANSSON

Mit dem NMUI in SO 36 ‘79
GROB 650/OBCD 10

More than an artifact, but less than a discographical revelation, this CD restores to circulation one of the Berlin-based label FMP’s few 45-rpm singles. Released in the mid-1980s, that platter contained a 12-minute selection from this concert. Restored to its nearly 78½-minute length, the full-length CD offers a peek at eight, first generation Euroimprovisers during their transition from Free Jazzers to Free Musicians.

While there are many moments of unbridled excitement and tongue-in-cheek humor here, the rational for releasing the truncated single is obvious as well. Sounding most of the time like participants in a high-class House Rent party, there are points at which it seems that the musicians really do play whatever comes into their heads. Lacking focus and clarity, you have to hear the disc as a particularized soundscape of its time — 1979 — and place — Berlin.

A time of innate conservatism, which would intensify in the 1980s, the late 1970s found avant gardists like Swedish-born, Berlin-based drummer Sven-Åke Johansson searching for new routes. Someone associated with rule breaking since his work with saxophonist Peter Brötzmann in the 1960s, Johansson was fighting jazz’s neo-con tendencies here by taking this gig at a punk rock hangout. At the same time he and his longtime associate tenor saxophonist Rüdiger Carl subvert the punkers’ view of things by playing accordions and having the band to vamp on Swing-like melodies. NMUI also offers up final barbaric yaps from other musicians whose future strategies would move them far from turbulent energy music.

That’s why the meat in these improvisations occurs on the overlong first and third tracks with their pastiches of screaming energy music, vamping fox trots, exploratory extended instrumental techniques and ditties that stray close to beer hall singalongs.

Along the way unexpected personalities are exposed. “I Melodie in F, berliner/früh um fünfe”, finds the guitarists stretching rhythmic figures as if they were Pat Hare and Muddy Waters, slurring and sliding tones over the fretboard. Growling split tones and flutter tongue smears come from reedist Wolfgang Fuchs and Carl, who has since abandoned the horn, and the sawing bass line is from Dutch bassist Maarten Altena who now confines himself to composition .

Radu Malfatti joins with Thomas Wiedermann to push out some lusty trombone blats, extended scoops and tremolos. Talking as well as playing, Johansson contributes some subtle, then not-so-subtle shuffle beats, rattles and drums smashes.

But what’s this? Swelling, ruffling accordion lines move to the forefront as one squeezebox inflates to distending double-stopped tones and the other keeps to a metronome continuum. Yelling out “when we play it, you won’t recognize it ”, the entire band pumps out a Swing Era-like riff which basically sounds like what could have been played by Josef Gobbels’ favorite dance band circa 1943. No sooner is the audience acclimatized to that, than Carl takes off on a honking, squealing New Thing tenor saxophone exercise, slyly playing variations on the previous theme with rat-tat-tat squeals. The drummer bounces, rebounds and ruffs underneath until the horns combine for a tongue-in-check orchestral reading of another Mittle European theme, which in turn is subsumed by distorted reverb from the guitarists.

Creaking sul ponticello output from the bassist, metallically dragging the bow up and down the strings from the bridge to the fingerboard, brings forth even more abrasive splayed notes and a few out-of-earshot yells. As part of the tune’s development, a few minutes before the end, the Swing theme reappears, this time unsure of whether it’s coming from a Swing combo or an omp pah pah band. Altena’s variations on the theme turn to pure buzz, Johansson produces harmonic concussions on resonating surface as if he’s spinning metal bowls, as shattering reverb from the guitarists coax a shuffle rhythm from the drummer and scattered applause from the audience.

More compact at a little more than 14 minutes, “III Eins bis zehn minus fünf” finds Johansson coming on like two drummers at once, building up a steady swirl of cross sticking rim shots plus snare and tom rumbles. Meanwhile, corkscrew squeals from the saxes hover around the tonal centre then mate with staccato runs from the trombones. When the brass advance to polytonal double-tonguing the textures are echoed by the arco strings to such an extent that the noise ejaculations almost make it sound like traffic jam time on the autobahn. Alive with chromatic slurs and cries that could be forced through the horn bells, there’s even a point where one trombonist — surely not Malfatti — produces exciting tailgate slurs. Eventually the pinched snake-and-ladder reed trills meet contrapuntal pressure of honks, smears, smashes, scrawls, concussions and pulls, finally ending with a recapitulation of the four-note brass band/traffic jam theme.

“II Il anschluss mit handtuch >>ohne muskekraft - very soft<<”, the middle piece adds polyharmony, polytonality and polyrhythm to a triad of honks and squeaks from the horns and cymbal punctuation. But throughout the tempo shifts and intimations of classical string playing, not to mention odd metered reed vibrations, neighing trombone lines and door-knocking percussion, bits of coherence are lost. Here, above all, is where the instrumental parts add up to much less than their sum. You can sympathize with the half-hearted applause at the end.

No doubt this CD will be more valued by long-time followers of these men. Everyone can appreciate the flashes of instrumental ingeniousness. But perhaps an edited version of the performance’s high points would have expanded the earlier single and culled the excess.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. I Melodie in F, berliner/früh um fünfe 2. II Il anschluss mit handtuch >>ohne muskekraft - very soft<< 3. III Eins bis zehn minus fünf

Personnel: Radu Malfatti and Thomas Wiedermann (trombones); Wolfgang Fuchs (sopranino saxophone and bass clarinet); Rüdiger Carl (tenor saxophone and accordion); Hans Reichel and Norbert Eisbrenner (guitar and violin); Maarten Altena (bass and cello); Sven-Åke Johansson (drums and accordion)