Achim Kaufmann

Later
Pirouet Records IT3084

Christian Wallumrød

Pianokammer

Hubro CD 2542

Eve Risser

Des Pas Sur La Neige

Clean Feed CF 323 CD

Florian Wittenburg

Aleatoric Inspiration

Nurnichtnur 114 10 23

As early as the salad days of James P. Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton – or should that extend back to Liszt and Chopin – and a pattern that’s continued to today, pianists vied to prove their skill and originality in a solo context. Defining just how a piano should sound and how it’s played has, of course, been transmogrified since the days of mazurkas and cakewalks, but contemporary stylists can still figuratively strut their stuff on the 88s. This quartet of CDs presents the works of contemporary European improvisers. Performances are either grounded in certain styles and characteristics, or confirm the flexibility of one keyboardist’s vision.

Providing instances of his adaptability, which additionally reflects his inclusive view of music, is pianist Achim Kaufmann. A more-than-committed Jazzer, who frequently plays with saxophonist Frank Gratkowski, the Berlin native doesn’t hold with narrow classifications. Like an Renaissance scientist seeing more phenomenon available than more orthodox believers, Later not only features compositions by Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols – as well as a healthy helping of Kaufmann originals – but also ones by Hanns Eisler, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett.

Kaufmann’s treatment of the last two is particularly illuminating. Dylan’s anathematic “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue” for instance is eased into from near country music chording, slyly unrolls the familiar theme and then subverting its rote melody so that it reaches Jazz time. Barrett’s “Dominoes” furthermore is stripped of all psychedelic overtones. Instead with an alchemist’s transformative touch Kaufmann links seemingly unattached phrases into a display of near-perfect European romanticism. Monk’s and Nicols’ lines are given appropriately equivalent treatment. Unlike dabblers who ignore Monk’s concept to standardize the music, Kaufmann retains the distinctive Monkish harmonies in “Misterioso”; maintaining necessary thematic integrity alongside his own improvisations. Propelling the melody like a bouncing ball while playing Nichols’ “Shuffle Montgomery”, Kaufmann’s nuanced swing gives the tune fluidity while maintaining links to the original.

Just as notable are Kaufmann’s originals. Like a canny post-modern novelist he doesn’t pledge allegiance to any one style, with compositions ranging from sumptuous, but not sentimental, ballads, to tone-skewing rhythm tunes. An example of the first is the brief “Moon Dripping”, where cross tones and strumming cements its empathetic seriousness even as key clips and measured syncopation ensure the linear form. “Čuk” or little owl, bounds and flies like its namesake, yet even the interpolated key smears and slurs suggest other familiar melodies rater than pushing into dissonance. All and all: a fine, expressive and memorable effort.

Like Kaufmann, Norwegian Christian Wallumrød expresses different piano-personalities on his solo disc. But the six-track outcome exposes a conundrum. Pianokammer was recorded on three different pianos in three different studios at three different times. Yet like a swimmer who tests the water in the shallow end, Wallumrød seems to be mostly engaged with practice strokes before taking the plunge. Best-known as part of the chamber-improv Dans les Arbres quartet, and a collaborator with other Scandinavia musicians, Wallumrød’s playing on the first couple of tracks is so ghostly and restrained that the gossamer rhythms that come through appear more soft-pedaled – literally –than subtle. Additionally the spunky metallic clumps and clanks which break up the moderato line on “School og Ecofisk” relate less to pointed serialism than what would happen if a cutlery drawer was dumped during a Floyd Crammer solo. Luckily the rest of the disc is more substantial.

The outer-space-like echoes which first menace and then vanish during the toy-piano like chording on “Second Fahrkunst” are original enough. “Boyd 1970”, which was probably created with two overdubbed piano lines, wallows in the bass clef and could probably be termed a Norwegian blues. Saving the best for last, however, “Lassome” is a completely original, well-tempered tune that manages to concurrently approximate blues symmetry and the natural flow of a Great American Songbook melody. More provocatively, as Wallumrød loosens up and began splattering intense improvisational processes, a wiggy tape echo displace the initial theme and deconstructs it into fading atoms. One can’t fault Wallumrød’s solo piano vision or creation; the wish is that it was more prominent earlier.

Drawing in a way from both acoustic and acoustic-electric variants, Paris-based pianist Eve Risser has come up with a solo piano session that sounds nothing like the other two. Someone who in the past has divided her work between membership in the Orchestre National de Jazz as well as improvised sessions with the likes of bassist Benjamin Duboc, Risser appears to miss the textures of other instruments here. For like a musical Nicolas Tesla, evolving new gadgets, she has equipped her piano with all manner of preparations and geegaws so that most of the time it sounds like anything but a keyboard. Consisting of three tracks whose tones are supposed to reflect winter landscapes, Des Pas Sur La Neige does include the constant throbs plus multiples of terse resonations one hears on the streets of a snowy metropolis. Motionless silences affiliated with less populated areas are missing however.

Perhaps she’s using an e-bow or some other electronic device to multiply the piano impulses, but there are points at which the program sounds similar to that advanced by AMM, The Necks or some other sophisticated improv-drone outfit. Especially on the first two tracks her output is acoustic, electric and ambient in equal measures. At points for example her expressive emotionalism replicates what could be a harp and harpsichord intermezzo; other times the oscillating tremolo sounds completely electronic. It’s as if she’s part of the experiment where a human scientist plays chess with a super-computer; except here she’s taking both roles. With the over-36½-minute concluding “La Neige Sur La Ville” her magnum opus, the briefer “Des Pas Sur La Ville” that precedes it suggest themes that are further elaborated. As the timbres, which resemble the clanking of mah-jong tiles and bond paper ripping mutate into intimations of a New music percussion ensemble, she slyly appends episodes of Bop-Swing pianism alongside them.

Janus-like, both facets of Risser’s talent are audible on the final track. Even though massive organ-like chords concentrate billowing textures onto Jurassic monster-like drones and stentorian string strums resonate with the weight of boat-anchor ropes, she maintains the piano connection. Among the weighty crackles and pops are swift interjections where the click of ivory keys adds a dancing interface. Combining wave-form-like deep sourced yawns, double-bass-string-like twangs plus woody slaps against the piano’s sides as well as positioned crashes of the fallboard, a climax referencing a blizzard mixed with hailstones is reached. The coda includes high-pitched impressionist key smacks, which intimate that the muted sound of snowflakes are still falling. More technical than descriptive, Des Pas Sur La Neige certainly confirms that Risser has made her mark(s) as a (solo) pianist.

Like a Scandinavian-designed Plank chair in a room full of cushions and shop-class recliners, is Berlin native Florian Wittenburg’s Aleatoric Inspiration. Note that this is aleatoric not improvisation per se, since Wittenburg is an academically trained sound technologist and web designer as well as a composer and pianist. With its seeming low energy, long pauses, layering and repetitions, the CD’s eight selection appear monochromic compared to the vivid multi hues expressed on the other sessions. But considering that white is also the combination/sum of all colors, deep listening reveals the warp and woof of the tracks. The appropriately title “Dark Piece” is also the most realized, as Wittenburg draws sound tinctures from his instrument with more pressure on keys and pedals, creating telling reverb among lengthier bouts of sustained silence. The overall effect is that of an edifice that impresses with its resilience despite its spindly structure. With electronics on “Pulses & Drones” he creates a nearly opaque program of flat-line buzzing the ranges from mesmerizing to deadening until it fades away. Other compositions bend towards New music with bottom resonations and repeated patterns, some showing impressionistic inclinations and others Wagnerian heaviness. As for the chance or aleatoric labeled tracks, they seem to be more low frequency and studious than they should be. Comparable to some of Keith Jarrett’s improvisations, they’re characterized by complete lack of swing – but that too may be their raison d’étre. It’s encouraging that someone as skilled as Wittenburg is interested in using a variant of improvisation in his work. But more looseness in interpretation and additional sonic colors would have improved the session. Next time out the strands may be knit more loosely into a more gratifying musical garment.

As long as the acoustic piano continues to be manufactured and questing individuals are drawn to experiment with its properties on their own, discs like these will continue to appear. Each one deserves some exposure.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Later: 1. Blue-Brailled 2. The Mystery Song 3. Dominoes 4. Shuffle Montgomery 5. Callista Snow No. 2 6. Misterioso 7. Čuk 8. Portrait of Ucha/In den Weiden 9. Dave 10. Moon Dripping 11. The Embalmers' Waltz 12. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

Personnel: Later: Achim Kaufmann (piano)

Track Listing: Pianokammer: 1. Fahrkunst 2. Hoksang 3. Second Fahrkunst 4. Boyd 1970 5. School og Ecofisk 6. Lassome

Personnel: Pianokammer: Christian Wallumrød (piano)

Track Listing: Pas: 1. Des Pas Sur La Neige 2. Des Pas Sur La Ville 3. La Neige Sur La Ville

Personnel: Pas: Eve Risser (piano)

Track Listing: Aleatoric: 1. Aleatoric Inspiration – I 2. Pulses & Drones 3. Für Scarlett 4. Dark Piece 5. Little Permutation Piece 6. Motiv Sabine 7. Piece for Bowed Piano and Electronics 8. Aleatoric Inspiration - II

Personnel: Aleatoric: Florian Wittenburg (piano)