11 songs - Aus teutschen landen

By Ken Waxman
May 30, 2006

Probably the most innovative band to arise from the German Democratic Republic – that is the former East Germany – members of Zentralquartett dealt with unique circumstances before the Berlin Wall fell. Although operating in a pseudo-Stalinist culture that promoted so-called Socialist Realism, the band had government support as often as repression, since jazz was as seen as both anti-racist and as a slap at nationalism with its Nazi-era echoes.

Today the musicians – pianist Ulrich Gumpert, drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer, reedist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky and trombonist Conrad Bauer – are merely four more veteran German improvisers, with a bit of outsider cred. Yet this exceptional, fast-moving CD confirms that these Easterners still think – and play – differently than their more prosperous West German associates.

Musicologist Mike Heffley has written that since East Germans were less guilt-ridden about German history, a Teutonic strain – a variation of East German blues – plus old Germanic hymns were used as a basis for improvisation, a genre that was ignored and self-suppressed by West Germans. Distinctively, 11 songs - Aus teutschen landen is firmly in that inimitable tradition.

In fact, the volkslider that form the basis of these outstanding improvisations have melodies that go as far back as the 15th Century and were mostly collected in the mid-19th century from folk sources as part of German self-realization. On one level, consecrating an entire disc to these tunes is the equivalent of a modern American jazz band releasing a CD totally made up of Stephen Foster’s ante-bellum plantation songs. Of course knowing the sarcastic tendencies of Zentralquartett – note its mocking, pseudo-official name – it’s very likely that the members’ faces were anything but straight as they played these hoary ditties that are aus teutschen landen or “from German lands”.

Considering that these tunes were initially adopted and adapted by such self-consciously Germanic artists as Bach, Heine, Goethe and Brahms confirms their historic and kitsch potential. But Zentralquartett – like Thelonious Monk among others – is able to transmogrify the compositions into impressive improv – pulling the stuffings out of them without negating their underlying folkloric charm.

Much of this alchemy relates to the arrangements of Gumpert, who does such a bang-up job, that he manages to slip two of his own originals into the mix without the casual listener noticing. One, “Der alte thüringer”, is the lead track, and its hocketing development from simple folk ballad to cacophonous cartoon music mocks and celebrates what follows it perfectly. Beginning with a simple chord progression, the fanciful theme comes in-and-out-of focus as the pianist sounds high-frequency staccato arpeggios; the alto saxophonist assays contrapuntal split tones; the trombonist puffs out plunger expansions; and the drummer highlights rebounds, ruffs and a final press roll.

Transformation also affects 16th Century ditties like “Dat du min leevsten büst” and “Der maie, der maie”. The former takes on a drunken Second Line, marching band flavor courtesy of a rubato expansion of the melody from Bauer with splayed low notes and double tonguing – plus gospel-like chords from the pianist and contrapuntal effects from Petrowsky. As for the later, a round from 1550, it features Native Indian-style drumming mixed with a martial beat, as the vocalizing horns produce slithering textures that encompass broken octave counterlines. The tune concludes with trilling reed sighs plus pussy cat yowling and growling from the trombonist.

Zentralquartett can make a peasant dance tune from 16th Century sound like early Dixieland with barnyard and jungle effects that are helped immeasurably by Bauer’s smeary gutbucket approximations; or it can take a folk melody originally arranged by Brahms and transform it into an Ellington-styled ballad with Petrowsky’s smooth sax obbligatos replicating Johnny Hodges’ mellow tone. One hoary volkslider undergoes so much of a logical conversion that before Sommer uses it to demonstrate his skills rattling wooden bones and drum stick nerve beats, it appears to demonstrate how an oomph-pah-pah band would sound if its members were conversant with Albert Ayler’s mile-wide multiphonics.

Gumpert gets his showcase on “Kommt, ihr G'spielen”, an ancient Thuringian summer song, which he treats as if it is a close cousin of “Round Midnight” and “Mood Indigo”. Making references to the Monkish and Ducal cannons, his sensitive, yet bravura interpretation stretches the melody to bursting. Midway through, he proceeds to rupture it with gospelish chording. Expanded with a vigorous, almost rock’n’roll beat, his penetrating re-orchestration is complemented by Sommer’s ruffs and flams and Petrowsky’s buzz-saw saxophone split tones, leaving Bauer to double-tongue the original melody.

Capitalism’s insistence on survival of the fittest has replaced state support as the model for artists in the former East Germany, with Gumpert and Petrowsky now mostly confined to playing locally, Sommer to teaching gigs and European tours and only Bauer an international jazz festival fixture.

Almost without argument, 11 songs - Aus teutschen landen proves that Zentralquartett’s mixture of humor, bop, free-playing and Teutonic roots is without parallel. But does the globalized European Union – and its international music scene, jazz and improv divisions – still have a place for old-time, irreverent players like these? We can only hope so.