Ulrich Gumpert/Günter Baby Sommer

Das Donnernde Leben
Intakt CD 169

Long-time confreres and one-half of Zentralquatet, the most accomplish jazz band to arise from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – not that there was much competition – pianist Ulrich Gumpert and percussionist Günter Baby Sommer occasionally perform as a duo. Both sly composers as well as notable improvisers, this duo work, which was first recorded by FMP in 1973, reveals an unique facet of the men’s music.

Das Donnernde Leben’s 11 tracks sturdily confirm that truism. For it’s here that Gumpert, whose larger band arrangements feature an original take on the advances of activist composers like Charles Mingus; and Sommer, whose percussion prestidigitation is such that he’s worked with avatars as different as American pianist Cecil Taylor and French multi-reedist Sylvain Kassap, express several more identities. Firstly the two committed Free Musicians reveal tactics and trick that play up their ties to the on-going jazz tradition, which in Gumpert’s case stretches back through Taylor to Bobby Timmons, Ahmed Jamal and Earl Hines; and in Sommer’s from Art Blakey and Max Roach to his namesake “Baby” Dodds.

Secondly the out-and-out Germanicism which the two highlight when quoting Teutonic hymns and folk songs with Zentralquatet and elsewhere is augmented here as they improvise on three compositions by 74-year-old dissident singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann. A protégé of composer Hanns Eisler, Biermann’s tenure in East Germany was marked by denunciation as “class traitor” and being banned from performing after he declared that the GDR was as non-progressive as West Germany. Gumpert and Sommer publicly supported him even after he ran afoul of the East German government.

While a couple of Biermann’s tunes appear included for extra-musical solidarity, “Soldat, Soldat” is given the full improvised treatment. Taking off from simple marital drum beats and piano chording, the two first transform the piece into a Jazz march with high-pitched, slippery note clusters from Gumpert, which then becomes a Prussian capriccio as the pianist ranges over the keyboard. Meanwhile the drummer piles on ruffs and rebounds along with a few police whistle shrills.

“Blues für P.K.” honoring Peter Kowald, the late Wuppertal-based bassist who often traveled behind the then Iron Curtain to play with Gumpert and Sommer, shows their hearts are in the right place(s). However, that composition and “Funk for Two” are little more than swinging bagatelles. Although, especially on the later, when Gumpert works himself into cascading tremolo clusters and blues-note studded key strokes while Sommer lays on the back-beat, their efforts probably could get them a gig on Chicago’s South Side.

More generic to the date’s proposition are compositions such as Gumpert’s “Von C bis C”, Sommer’s “Inside Outside Shout” and others that were spontaneously created that day. “Inside Outside Shout” for instance is a perpetual motion demonstration of reverberating cymbals, roughly plumbed snares and drum-top friction, occasionally interrupted by internal string plinks and portamento piano runs just as hard and heavy as Sommer’s presentation. “Von C bis C” is awash in exaggerated keyboard patterning, high-frequency octave jumps and frenzied cross tones from Gumpert, who also uses by double-counterpoint runs to connect to the drummer’s wood-block whaps and invented sticking.

Summation of all their musical gifts is found on tunes such as “Free of All”. Leaping between layered piano chords and outlined single key exposure, Gumpert’s intermezzo leaves enough room for Sommer to express himself with resonating cymbals, whirligig whooshes, shaking maracas and marbles rolled on drum tops.

Another upside of German reunification and GDR musicians’ subsequent expanded fame is the availability of first-class discs like this one.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Locker vom Hocker 2. Von C bis C 3. Blues für P.K. 4. Ermutigung 5. Free for Two 6. Inside Outside Shout 7. Funk for Two 8. Kami-Fusen 9. Soldat, Soldat 10. Free of All 11.Das kann doch nicht alles gewesen sein

Personnel: Ulrich Gumpert (piano) and Günter Baby Sommer (drums and percussion)