January 1, 2010
Ballads & Barricades
Live in Lisbon
Jazzwerkstatt JW 076
Creating an individual identity within the oeuvre of another musician is always a challenge – especially if the subject is world famous. The Das Kapital trio and the Dok Wallach quartet – both featuring German tenor saxophonist Daniel Erdmann – evolve strategies to manage this transformative feat. Tellingly, the individual game plans are as different as the bands’ make up and the composers featured.
Despite its parodistic name, Das Kapital aims to revive the serious musical credential of German composer Hanns Eisler (18988-1962) with Ballads & Barricades. A committed Marxist and collaborator with playwright Bertolt Brecht, Eisler was exiled from the United States to East Germany in the late 1940s after being accused of being “the Karl Marx of music”. The composer, who had similar run-ins with the Nazis and the East German government, was a polymath. He’s definitely the only person nominated for two Oscars for his Hollywood film music, who also composed another country’s national anthem: East Germany’s Auferstanden aus Ruinen. A student of Arnold Schönberg, Eisler wrote pure music as well as agit-prop material, which Erdmann, who studied in the late 1990s at Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin, must have realized.
Although as combative and opinioned as Eisler, American bassist Charles Mingus (1922-1979), the subject of Live in Lisbon, never wrote for Hollywood or anyone’s national anthem, though he was pretty good at agit-prop performances in his time. However the all-German, Berlin-based Dok Wallace band – named for the bassist’s psychologist confidant – eschews Mingus’ verbal forays to re-examine his longer compositions.
Instrumentation is much different on each CD as well. Erdmann’s associates Ballads & Barricades are Paris-based, Danish guitarist Hasse Poulsen, who has worked with clarinetist Louis Sclavis; and drummer Edward Perraud, another Parisian, who is a member of Hubbub and other bands. Besides Erdmann, Live in Lisbon also features multi-woodwind player Michael Thieke, whose associations range from Free Bop bands to outright experimental units. Drummer Heinrich Köbberling has worked with everyone from pianist Aki Takase to guitarist Ben Monder, while bassist Johannes Fink is in the bands Viergruppe Gschlössl and clarinetist Rolf Kühn’s Tri-o.
Dok Wallace has a tougher job since so many of Mingus’ compositions are common in the jazz repertoire. However the quartet overcomes familiarity by concentrating on some of the bassist’s lesser-known pieces, as well as grouping a few into a series of montages, rather like a medley of Mingus hits. Although there are times during the performance when it sounds like the Lisbon audience may feel it’s participating in a session of “name that tune”, the band’s sophisticated approach means that über-familiar lines such as “Haitian Fight Song”, “Tijuana Table Dance” or “Boogie Stop Shuffle” don’t overpower the other arrangements.
That’s in spite of the fact that nearly every piece from Mingus’ justly-famous 1959 session appear on “Ah Um Montage”. Yet with Erdmann emphasizing the foghorn-like qualities of his saxophone with smears and spetrofluctuation, while Thieke scatters timbres and bites his reed, the contrapuntal harmonies work. Sensitive and secure enough to provide the backdrop, the drummer merely scrapes taps and drags, while Fink bounces and walks.
More upfront is “Tijuana Moods Montage” with the four alternately concentrating and splitting apart the melodies with double-stopping bass lines, fluttering tongue vibrations and hand-patted drum pressure. At points Erdmann’s deep-throated squeals and roughed-up breaths are backed only by bass and drums; elsewhere while his output remains straight-lined, Thieke tongue slaps and reveals split tones, deconstructing the familiar riffs without losing their essence. Eventually the side-slipping obbligatos from the horns match up with pulls and picks from bassist Fink, so that other themes are interpolated into the mix.
On the other CD, Eisler’s work presents its own challenges. Unlike Mingus’ stylistic consistency – once he discovered his mature persona about 1956 – the German composer’s tunes skip all over the place from marches to schmaltz, to parodies and to anthems. Luckily – for the non-East German or music scholar – the melodies are unfamiliar enough to not evoke certain associations when performed. Only “Die Morosoldaten” performed by folksinger Pete Seeger as “Peat Bog Soldiers” may stir left-wing memories. However Das Kapital’s version undercuts the politics with press rolls and bass drum pops from Perraud, strangled banjo-like twangs from Poulsen and Erdmann’s false fingering encompassing snorts and split tones.
Putting aside that the bossa nova-like treatment of “An den Deutschen Mond” making it sound uncomfortably like the Guess Who’s “She Coming Home (Undone)”, the “Volga Boatman”-like pulses or faux jollity of some of the other tunes leave you wondering what was serious and what was burlesque when the pieces were originally composed. Still the Kapitalists also prove themselves capable of heart-felt balladic work on “Marie weine nicht”, using irregularly emphasized strumming from the guitarist, a backbeat from the drummer and the saxophonist’s self-contained, low-frequency air floats to add color and emphasis.
More pertinently, a trio of pieces outlines the band’s approach. Staccato, with clanking guitar lines and speedy drum beats, “Das Wonderland” evolves contrapuntally as Erdmann unveils tongue stops and irregular vibratos. When the piece accelerates to staccatissimo and agitato, the saxman bellows in forward motion while Poulsen responds with sharp snaps and delayed chiming. Cutting across Erdmann’s exaggerated vibrato, the guitarist eventually supports the reedman’s final altissimo slurs.
“Landschaft des Exils” – the performance of which undercuts its title – is a jolly waltz borne on rolling drum beats, ukulele-like guitar pings and a thick tenor saxophone line. Here, as Poulsen sprays curlicue licks and Perraud sounds a shuffle beat, Erdmann plays a connective obbligato. The there’s “Solidaritäslied”, where Perraud’s backbeat undulates from martial to dance rhythm and back again, and where many spectral colors are exposed in guitar-saxophone counterpoint. At one point Erdmann thickly and jocularly burlesques Perraud’s changing rhythms, then finally splinters the melody apart with altissimo squeals.
Successfully answering the question of how to reanimate musically familiar material in distinctive ways is the achievement of both Das Kapital and Dok Wallach. Plus each CD confirms aspects of Erdmann’s burgeoning talents.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Ballads: 1. An den Deutschen Mond 2. Ohne Kapitalisten des Gartens 3. Vom Sprengen des Gartens 4. Die Morosoldaten 5. Auf der Flutch 6. An der kleinen Radioapparat 7. Lied von der Moldau 8. Das Wonderland 9. Hotelzimmer 1942 10. Landschaft des Exils 11. Elegie 1939 12. Solidaritäslied 13. Mutter Beimlein 14. Einheitsfrontlied 15. Marie weine nicht
Personnel: Ballads: Daniel Erdmann (tenor saxophone); Hasse Poulsen (guitar) and Edward Perraud (drums)
Track Listing: Live: 1. Tijuana Moods Montage 2. Hobo Ho 3. Eclipse 4. Ah Um Montage 5. Pithecanthropus Erectus 6. Self Portrait in Three Colors 7. Meditations on Integration
Personnel: Live: Michael Thieke (alto saxophone, clarinet and alto clarinet); Daniel Erdmann (tenor saxophone); Johannes Fink (bass) and Heinrich Köbberling (drums)