Rolf Kühn & TRI-O

Rollercoaster
Jazzwerkstatt JW 039)

Link between Germany’s post-war modern jazz and a newer generation of improvisers, 80-year-old clarinetist Rolf Kühn revels in this rollercoaster ride of a CD that proves that age is just a number. Teamed with a trio of players around a half-century his junior, the Leipzig-raised woodwind master shows that he’s as stylistically and imaginatively swift as when as the composer of “Rolly’s Bebop”, his1948 solo on the tune announced the emergence of a major jazz stylist.

With seven of the compositions here his own, Kuhn stays within his comfort zone most of the time. But considering his past includes membership in the Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey bands in the early 1960s; a Newport Jazz fest gig with bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Aldo Romano and his younger pianist brother Joachim later on; gigs with everyone from FreeBop trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff to Bop clarinetist Buddy DeFranco; plus composing for TV, film and working as theatre music director; that range is wide. Two of Rollercoaster’s other tracks in fact, find him in the thickset of non-conventional improv with lines penned by Joachim Kühn (“Changing the Umbrella”) and Ornette Coleman (“Round Trip”).

On the later Coleman’s almost child-like theme become even sunnier when the clarinetist appears to be grafting quotes from “Jesus Christ, Superstar” into his solo. With drummer Christian Lillinger and bassist Johannes Fink holding on to the beat as solidly as any of Coleman’s 1960s rhythm sections, echoing licks from guitarist Ronny Graupe easily make common cause with Kühn.

Episodic and distinctive “Changing the Umbrella” moves through various tempos and times without turning the beat around, and with enough contrast to balance different sections. One part features chiming, chromatic guitars licks, drum rolls and pops plus staccatissimo high-pitched reed trills; another is recast as a delayed chamber music intermezzo, as Kühn and Graupe play off one another – the guitarist with sharp spidery runs and wide tonal colors and the clarinetist agitato with a brisk vibrato.

Berlin-based Graupe, studied music in Leipzig, and is a member of such bands as Hyperactive Kid and Spoom with drummer Lillinger. Lillinger, who studied percussion in Dresden with Günter “Baby” Sommer, has played with veteran musicians such as vibist Günter Hampel and pianist Kühn, while he and bassist Johannes Fink are the rhythm section of Vierergruppe Gschlößl

Graupe’s Brazilian preferences, while alluded to throughout the session, get the most concentrated exposure on his own “Carneval”. Even though the drummer brings some stick-dragged-along-cymbals friction to the proceedings, most of the tune is oriented around the guitarist’s cascading arpeggios. Alternately moderato and Mozartian, Kühn outputs unison staccato lines in unison with Graupe. Meanwhile the composer sums up the theme with caressing simple emphasized lines.

Smoother, “Total Reflections” – one of Kühn’s own compositions – comprehensively reflects his talents. Soaring over the quasi-Latin rhythms with warm, legato timbres, midway he switches effortlessly to secondary slips and slides – then stops the proceedings on a dime – or is that a Deutschmark?

Even at 80, the talent that over the years has had Kühn’s skills compared to those of American clarinet masters such as Goodman and DeFranco are still in evidence. So is his individuality.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. What a F… Day 2. Rollercoaster 3. Changing the Umbrella 4. Going Places 5. Carneval 6. Let’s Be Friends 7. Total Reflections 8. Round Trip 9. Time for a Sunny Day

Personnel: Rolf Kühn (clarinet); Ronny Graupe (guitar); Johannes Fink (bass) and Christian Lillinger (drums)