Reform Art Quartet

On The Other Side
Audiocenter/Improjazz RAU 1001/1002

Free Jazz’s and Improvised Music’s history isn’t as linear as it would seem. With hindsight it turns out that since most histories are written by victors, those musicians with the most subsequent acclaim or resources take up inordinate space in books on Free Music. Yet despite some spectacularly celebrated milestones, creative music has always been impelled forward incrementally, often by idea generators in so-called out-of-the-way places. All of which leads to this memorable production recorded by a quartet of exploratory Austrians in a Vienna art museum in April 1969. Subtitled “dedicated to John Coltrane and Pablo Picasso” this valuable LP traces how far the four – Fritz Novotny (soprano saxophone, flute and bells); Sepp Mitterbauer (piano and trumpet); Anton Michlmayr (bass) and Walter Malli (drums and piano) – had taken the ideas of Trane and other Free Jazzers to create an individual gestalt that called on European artistic and New music roots as well as Jazz.

Coltrane had died only two years previously, while Picasso was still very much alive in 1969, so the Reform Art Quartet was expressing its attachment to two ongoing traditions. In truth, when Novotny sticks to flutter tonguing on soprano and Mitterbauer to sharp modal playing on piano, the relationship to the classic Coltrane quartet is more than pronounced. There’s even a point where it sounds as if “A Love Supreme” riff is being interpolated inside this sequence. As a aside, before a large pause on Side A when the rhythm section plays alone, it’s as if Mitterbauer, Michlmayr and Malli have worked out a rhythmically independent variant on the Jazz piano trio tradition, one part Cecil Taylor’s discordant dynamics and one part cleaving to the romantic Tin Pan Alley style. By the way is that “A Taste of Honey” that suggests itself in between double-stopped bass runs and chordal punches from the pianist?

By the time Mitterbauer breaks out his trumpet on Side B, Novotny has already been suggesting Orientalized and Middle Eastern motifs with his flute. Strangely Mitterbauer’s concept is more brassy Freddie Hubbard-like than the sort of avant-World tones associated with Don Cherry, so it’s up to Novotny to keep the irregular textures flowing from his horns. With Malli in the piano chair, Mitterbauer makes his brass tone more angular and jagged, finally meeting flute rasps in a climatic episode of contrapuntal excitement.

Novotny had formed his ensemble, usually called The Reform Art Unit (RAU), four years previously–and over the years in different configurations it would go on to play with Sunny Murray, Clifford Thornton, Burton Green and Franz Koglmann among others. But this early session proves that without outside influences the RAU was following a path of its own making. That’s one of the reasons the RAU is able to celebrate its 50th year of existence in 2015.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Side A 2. Side B

Personnel: Fritz Novotny (soprano saxophone, flute and bells); Sepp Mitterbauer (piano and trumpet); Anton Michlmayr (bass) and Walter Malli (drums and piano)