October 16, 2015
Philipp Gropper’s Philm
The Madman of Naranam
Sieben acht gute nacht
Establishing himself as a soloist and bandleader besides his day job as one third of the long-running Hyperactive Kid trio, Berlin-based Philipp Gropper brings his voice forward in the Fusk quartet, as well as with his own quartet Philm. The tenor saxophonist has a throaty, somewhat nonchalant tone that insinuates itself within these groups like the full-color illustrations in medieval manuscripts that aided in their dissemination. Recorded two years apart – almost to the day – each disc is a careful delineation of the reedist’s mature style.
Confirming Free Music’s increased globalism, Fusk consists of two Germans – established international improviser, bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall plus Gropper – along with two Danes, drummer Kasper Tom Christiansen, who composed all 11 selections, and solid bassist Andreas Lang. Additionally, Sieben acht gute nacht was recorded in a Warsaw club and released on a Polish imprint. Overall the tracks have an updated Cool Jazz feel about them as if the legato bounce of 1950s West Coast jazz has been toughened up and taken a bit outside by the more rough-hewn Continentals.
Case in point is the distinctive “Lufthafen” where Mahall’s knife-like bites and leathery snorts dig an aleatory hole within the theme, otherwise notable for side-by-side pacing by the bass-and-drum team. Meanwhile, the more casual “Isst doch wurst” appears to relate to Monk’s “Evidence” and even more so to its contrafact, “Just You, Just Me”, as the clarinetist’s hocketing harmonies pitch-slide from the top to the bottom of his range and Gropper adds a moderato counter line. Coming on like Inuit throat singers passing the melody from one to another on “Suburbia Surreal”, the saxophonist’s output is altissimo and sprawling, while Mahall cries like a berserk factory whistle and they ape each other’s irregular vibrations throughout.
The clearest indication of the Christiansen-composed group strategy occurs on the skipping “Music 1.0” however. Broken chord balance is sustained between the clarinetist’s shiny bugle-like timbres and the saxophonist’s cooler yet raunchier tone. Imagine John Carter improvising alongside Dewey Redman – both were Texans with connections to Ornette Coleman after all – and note how the piece can be sardonic and satisfying simultaneously.
Front-line skill doesn’t detract from Christiansen’s compositional smarts either. “Kamienna wola” is as notable for its popping, slinky melody as rattles from his peppery drum work rein in the excess glossolalia of the horn players. Meanwhile “Booze” with its shuffle beat, clashing cymbals and Lang’s walking bass line could be a Adderley brothers soul-blues, but one with Klezmer echoes, perhaps after the band got into the ceremonial wine during a freylich. Spirited wails sprout from the tenor saxophone and Mahall’s seesaw variations.
Lang, who has played with Gunter Hampel, is correspondingly authoritative but circumspect on The Madman of Naranam, especially when linked with the sophisticated drumming of Oliver Steidle, who often works with Mahall. Recorded in Berlin and consisting of all Gropper compositions, the result is more sparse and spacious than the other disc, especially with the wild card bass clarinetist shuffled from the deck and replaced by pianist Elias Stemeseder, who has worked with Jim Black and helps the others more closely align like a musical suit of cards.
With segues bonding successive tracks, Philm easily comes across like a professional and contemporary ensemble, but without being particular European. Instead influences from everywhere are linked together. “Kamienna wola” for instance, shows off Stemeseder’s near-classical stylings that oddly enough turn to a variant of Chicago south-side soul as the pace slows down and the mood turns darker and more dissonant. Furthermore if the tumescent thrusts that help Gropper propel his melody on “2nd Try” have antecedents they’re relaxed and Getz-like, close to Stan’s 1970s free-ish period – rather than Gayle-like, or any clamorous timbres Charles could have played at that time or any time since. Subsequently the pianist, who in the previous “Ze” propelled discordant chords forward in response to gut-string slashes from Lang and iron-pumping ruffs from Steidle, turns to cinematic romanticism on “2nd Try”. With castanets-like rhythms, he joins the reedist’s lower-case slurs to reinvent a calming relaxed theme.
Distanced drum patterning, piano key-fanning and saxophone slurs coming out in toothpaste-tube-like spurts add dynamism to many of the other tracks. Yet the one-two punch of “Quintuplets 3” and “Photostomias Guernei (The Deep)” most clearly delineate Philm’s – and by extension Gropper’s – approach. Starting with constricted altissimo reed cries, droning drum pops and pummeling so powerfully from Stemeseder that it appears as if the ivory could be chipped, the second tune maintains this consolidated strength even as the textures mutate to complete the double arrangement with medium-tempo, melodic prudence.
Well-balanced throughout, there’s no hints of a madman’s expression on the German CD, just the sound of high-quality reasonable music. Those yearning for a little more craziness in a program may seek out the Polish-recorded disc.
Track Listing: Madman: 1. Madman of Naranam 2. Quintuplets 3 3. Photostomias Guernei (The Deep) 4. Quintuplets 7 5. Ze 6. 2nd Try 7. Quintuplets 5 8. Für die 68er 9. 01101010010
Personnel: Madman: Philipp Gropper (tenor saxophone); Elias Stemeseder (piano); Andreas Lang (bass) and Oliver Steidle (drums)
Track Listing: Sieben: 1. Chief 2. Led Right, Gleen Right 3. Lufthafen 4. Music 1.0 5. Isst doch wurst 6. Suburbia Surreal 7. Booze 8. Alles klar, Herr kommandant! 9. Kamienna wola 10. Freunde der guten music 11. Sieben acht gute nacht
Personnel: Sieben: Rudi Mahall (bass clarinet); Philipp Gropper (tenor saxophone); Andreas Lang (bass) and Kasper Tom Christiansen (drums)