Usquert I-XI
Listermusic lm007

Chris Abrahams/Sabine Vogel


Absinth Records 024

Although Fats Waller recorded some Jazz sides on the pipe organ in the 1930s, as did a few other lesser known players later on, the concept of modern organ improvising is associated with the portable the electronic model popularized by Jimmy Smith and others from 1956 onwards. At least, that is, until Free Music came along. Looking for new avenues of expression, adventurous keyboardists tried their hand improvising on mammoth pipe organs that have sat in theatres or churches for years, sometimes centuries. On these CDs, for instance, two German residents have come up with programs which contrast bellowing organ timbres from the multi-pipes acoustic model with distinctive timbres from other instruments, plus in some cases taking into account spatial audio qualities. But there are major differences as well.

No matter how abstract it becomes, Usquert I-XI often appears to refer back to the so-called European classical tradition. It may have something to do with the instruments used. Besides Erlangen-based keyboardist Klaus Treuheit, who also composes for film and theatre, and who handles the dual keyboards and pipes, the other players are Dutch guitarist Dick Toering, who has recorded with drummer Han Bennink and Munich-based cellist Johanna Varner, who has played with stylists as different as composer Olga Neuwirth and bassist William Parker. More exploratory, Koopfüberwell matches the multi organ pipes played by Chris Abrahams, best known as pianist in The Necks, with the single pipe of Munich-born, Potsdam-based flautist Sabine Vogel, who has worked with everyone from composer/reedist Anthony Braxton to inside-piano specialist Andrea Neumann

Modulating between ethereal and oscillating timbres, there are points during Koopfüberwell’s six tracks that it becomes difficult to distinguish the sounds of one cylinder from the other(s). Still, the organ’s constant tremolo lines in contrast to the flute’s rapid jittery chirps eventually allow the instruments to assert their respective identities. On one hand Abrahams enlivens his improvisations by introducing calliope-like shrills or concentrating on a low-key continuum. On the other Vogel regularly ensures that her narratives aren’t buried under massed organ chords by producing twitching and/or bitten off timbres as well as vocalizing through her instrument’s body tube.

But as fascinating as hearing stop-time ping-ponging among designated textures from the two, the real excitement arrives when both players use extended techniques. Expressive puffs and swallowed tones characterize Vogel’s game plan when the organist lets out his instrument’s stops exponentially on “Handwriting”. Dense, wrap-around organ tones meet distant metallic whines on “Floating Head Over”. Finally the two reach a climax of careful timing when Vogel’s measured between-note breaths confirm the basic humanness of her playing, contrasting and putting into even bolder relief the mammoth rasps from Abrahams’ giant wood-and-metal machine, which moves towards the robotic.

Trio textures take on more flesh-and-blood affiliations during the more legato inventions which make up Usquert’s 11-part suite. Frequently letting out all the stops on the 1852 instrument he’s playing, Treuheit uses his dual keyboards to set up a continuum, subtly filling the tracks with low-key burbles. At the same time these layered quivers don’t hog the aural space. Instead there’s room for sequences of Toering’s folksy strums or slurred fills; or in Varner’s case, strategies that are just as apt to highlight hard-driving sawing or staccato scrapes on the cello’s strings as often as gorgeously balanced impressionistic interludes. With tracks evolving in broken-octave accordance, solos either seep generically into the theme or less frequently are angled into the narratives.

“UsqV” and “UsqVI” for instance find the two string players splaying staccato impulses as the organist’s vibrations judder discretely. As these keyboard strategies cascade into tougher tremolo lines, Toering asserts himself with frailing licks and Varner does the same with inventive double stopping. By the time the second sequence appears the organ calliope-like tones underline a triple face off. The organist does have an advantage however, since the full extent of his instrument’s power can suggest choir-like, fully-realized, multi-part voicing on it does on “UsqX”.

All and all, the organ-saturated conceptions realized on the two CDs here will likely never appeal to fans of Jimmy Smith or E. Power Biggs. But they do suggest provocative methods with which to redefine and harness the power of stationary instruments through novel improvisatory meetings.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Koopfüberwell: 1. Roadless 2. Handwriting 3. Luftleere räume 4. Floating Head Over 5. Auftauchend 6. Companions for the River Journey

Personnel: Koopfüberwell: Sabine Vogel (flutes) and Chris Abrahams (pipe organ)

Track Listing: Usquert: 1. UsqI 2. UsqII 3. UsqIII 4. Usq IV 5. UsqV 6. UsqVI 7. UsqVII 8. UsqVIII 9. Usq IX 10. UsqX 11. UsqXI

Personnel: Usquert: Dick Toering (guitar); Johanna Varner (cello) and Klaus Treuheit (pipe organ)