May 18, 2008
Sven-Åke Johansson, Moderne Nordeuropäische Dorfmusik
Berlin Symfonie MIND1968 - 72
Olof Bright Editions OBCD 14-15
Selwyn Lissack’s Friendship Next of Kin
Facets of the Univers
DMG ARC 702
Operating in the shade of rock music’s hegemony and somewhat overshadowed by American experiments, in the late 1960s-early 1970s European-based improvisers were creating their own answers to the question of how to forge modern music.
As these little-known period CDs led by drummer-conceptual artists demonstrate, these responses could take a multitude of forms. Better known of the leaders is Swede Sven Åke Johansson, a long-time Berlin resident, whose affiliation with the avant-garde ranges from his early participation in saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s bands –including the seminal Machine Gun session – to his position today when he still plays with youngish experimenters like trumpeter Axel Dörner. His art is a sideline.
Facets of the Univers on the other hand is led by Selwyn Lissack, a South African, who subsequently abandoned music to concentrate on his career as a hologram sculptor. Recorded in 1969, the CD, which has been beefed up with a second version of the title track, captures that point when expatriates of all sorts were shaking up the London jazz scene. Most of the rest of the band consists of other former South Africans like trumpeter Mongezi Feza, bassist Harry Miller and Louis Moholo on incidental percussion. The group is filled out by Jamaican Kenneth Terroade on tenor saxophone and flute; Englishman Mike Osborne on alto saxophone; and American Earl Freeman on piano, bass and voice
Although Freeman, who also played with saxophonists Archie Shepp and Noah Howard, is the only Yank on the date, the session seems to take its cue from the extended polyphonic exoticism captured on similar New Thing outings of the time, encompassing ragged, climatic unison heads and expositions – plus a spoken word section.
Berlin Symfonie MIND1968 – 72 is an altogether different affair. As well as Johansson’s blunt, unremitting percussion work, the 1968 band features bassist Werner Götz, who holds things together rhythmically, and Norbert Eisbrenner, who today is also a painter, but then split his improvising between unvarnished Energy music on alto saxophone and Ur-psychedelic guitar runs. One track from Stockholm in 1970 adds legendary tenor saxophonist Bengt “Frippe” Nordstöm (1936-2000), whose contribution ranges from Aylerian to distracted The three final tracks, recorded in Oslo with cellist Peter Dyck, Eisbrenner and Johansson meander due to the sonic contradictions between the cellist’s sometimes romantically legato style and the guitarist’s style mutation into what could be a prototypical heavy-metal string shredding.
A Cape Town native, Lissack arrived in Britain in the mid-1960s and hooked up with like-minded players from his Apartheid-era homeland and others. Yet on this CD, the undulating lines, contrapuntal reed squeals and pounding percussion on both versions of “Friendship Next of Kin” relate more to similar Shepp or Albert Ayler dates than anything the expatriate Africans or minimalist-oriented Brits were trying,
For a start, playing a Don Cherry-like pocket trumpet, Feza’s triple-tongue slurs and tremolo sluices seem to come from Donald Ayler not the Townships, while both saxophonists’ wiggling snorts and walloping honks fit into the Shepp-John Tchicai mold of the time. Meanwhile Freeman contributes ragged, high-frequency piano chording as an irregularly paced counter line to the main theme. As the two percussionists add redoubled flams and bounces, gospelish call-and-response and layering discord results when Osborne and Terroade add glossolalia. Finally the piece is brought to its head with a tincture of bright growls from the trumpeter and a conclusive piano chord and drum roll.
The second version of “Friendship Next of Kin” is more of the same, except additionally irregularly pitched and recaps the head, which mirrors Ayler’s “Ghosts”. Along the way, Freeman introduces a waterfall of dynamic pianism and Feza plays high-pitched triplets; while the split-tone saxophone solos are harsh and antiphonal. More so than the first cut, Lissack gets to showcase his cymbal reverberations, patterning and rolls on the snares and toms.
Derivative and shackled to its time-frame, Freeman’s poetry on the title track is more an artifact than an avowal. In contrast, the memorable asides are Lissack’s tympani-like resonations, finger-cymbal like slaps and concussions from Moholo, swaying sul tasto lines from Miller and some raspy triplets from Feza. Osborne’s shrill and irregular whine confirms his individual status in this context, while Terroade’s double-tonguing on flute adds more variety to the cut.
Variety wasn’t among the Johansson trio’s concerns on the first CD of his collection. It was 1968 in Berlin, and the drummer’s group was one of the many providing what they heard as a soundtrack to a student and workers revolt. As elsewhere throughout this set, Götz comes across as MVP; his brooding thumps holding the almost-48½-minute piece together as the other two appear to be forging a progenitor to punk-jazz.
Extending the range of his kit as if he was playing electric drums, Johansson’s percussion impulses include clicks, clanks, sprawls, pumps and rolls. Eisbrenner is beginning to utilize phasers and distortion in his guitar solos and if it wasn’t for the bassist’s thick chording, the guitarist could have dragooned performance into Yardbirds territory. Luckily on alto saxophone, his trills and breaths introduce wispy reed-biting and hisses that lock into the Free Jazz tradition and are propelled with some Sunny Murray-like door knocking from the drummer. Although Eisbrenner’s lines are sometimes as abstract and fluttery as Götz’s are solid and conceptual, this adds to the track’s appeal. More than a revolutionary war cry, the reference to “modern Northern European village music” in the title is reified by inference if not intent.
Eventually the musique brut opens up enough so that the bassist can relax his sul tasto beat for fiddle-like runs and to scour and pick additional tinctures from his four strings. His freedom appears to embolden Eisbrenner as a guitarist, and on that instrument his soloing encompasses hard, chromatic frailing plus harsh below the bridge, both mixed with unexpected amp feedback. Summing up, the piece lurches to a finale which features the drummer roused to military style paradiddles and flams and the bassist introducing dramatic Death Metal-like multiphonics while double stopping.
Norway – Death Metal’s birthplace – appears to adversely affect the group four years later on during three tracks taped at an Oslo club. At this point however, Eisbrenner and Johansson are partnered by cellist Dyck. Although some of the cellist’s strident, lower-pitched sawing is reminiscent of Joel Freedman’s work with Ayler, most of the time the instrument’s harmonic history adds an unneeded elegance to the tracks. Additionally – intentionally or not – the guitarist had by then planted himself firmly in the rock camp. He speedily flanges and rappels up and down his strings reveal licks that seem to have wandered in from a country-rock session. While a few passages show off the drummer’s skills weaving slide whistles shrills, press rolls and bell-ringing into Free Jazz rhythms, even banging bluntly on the bass drum can’t seem to reconcile the others’ conceptions.
Furthermore, despite Götz’s presence two years earlier in Stockholm, the 26-minute improvisation there also never quite solidifies. Part of the problem may be that Eisbrenner is beginning to concentrate most fully on a rockier style, with passages sounding as if he has a resonator attached to his f-hole. Additionally, Nordström’s cloning of Ayler – he was Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to Ayler’s Woody Guthrie – seems in this instance to have slowed down his idea flow. Certain phrases that resemble “Ghosts” or “Vibrations” appear over and over again; some licks are mere phrase extenders or hooting overblowing. At one point Nordström’s meandering cause someone – Eisbrenner perhaps? – to chime in with Swing-to-Bop piano comping behind some of his solos. Later on, someone intones a poem in Swedish, which detracts as completely from the cohesive creation as Freeman’s versifying does on the other CD. At the track’s conclusion, Dyck introduces Jack Benny-style, fiddle-string scratching as the drummer reverberates something that sounds very close to garbage can lids. Overall, it’s the near-elastic resonation from Johansson’s cymbals and scraps on his percussion innards and sides which enliven the piece.
Both Facets of the Univers and Berlin Symfonie MIND1968 – 72 are valuable historical documents, although neither quite makes it into the front rank. With a greater range of colors, the Lissack session may have a slight edge, blunted by the recitation and its then-contemporary stance. Johansson’s three sessions attempt more, but also suffer from a too-loose live presentation. Of the three, the 1968 disc has the most to offer musically and sociologically.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Facets: 1. Friendship Next of Kin 2. Facets of the Universe 3. Friendship Next of Kin
Personnel: Facets: Mongezi Feza (pocket trumpet); Mike Osborne (alto saxophone); Kenneth Terroade (tenor saxophone and flute); Earl Freeman (piano, bass and voice); Harry Miller (bass); Selwyn Lissack (drums) and Louis Moholo (incidental percussion)
Track Listing: Berlin: CD I: 1. Berlin Symphonie+ CD II 1. New Nordic light I*+ 2. Fernes Donnern mit Donnerblech 3. Kleiner Marsch 4. Ended mit vibrato und wirbel
Personnel: Berlin: Bengt “Frippe” Nordström (tenor saxophone)*; Norbert Eisbrenner (guitar, alto saxophone and voice); Peter Dyck (cello [CD2 tracks 2-4]); Werner Götz bass) + and Sven-Åke Johansson (drums and voice)