Christian Lillinger

Grund
Pirouet PIT 3086

By Ken Waxman

With angular intensity in his gaze and his hair in a quiff, German percussionist Christian Lillinger, 31, could be jazz’s James Dean. While his acting credentials are unknown, the Berlin-based drummer is a lot more than a pretty face. He’s made his name as a sideman with the likes of venerable clarinetist Rolf Kühn and with his high-octave Hyperactive Kid trio. Now like the leading man who proves his mettle as director and star of a gritty drama, Lillinger has attained another musical plateau with Grund having composed 11 interlocking pieces interpreted by a high-octane septet. Using his trenchant percussion command, the drummer underlines or puts into bolder relief the compositions’ architecture as well as the other players’ contributions.

Like an edifice put together by master builders, not only do the themes balance the improvisational flights, but the band makeup itself is symmetrical. There are two reedists: Pierre Borel on alto saxophone and Tobias Delius on tenor saxophone and clarinet; two bassists: Jonas Westergaad and Robert Landfermann; with vibraphonist Christopher Dell and pianist Achim Kaufmann splitting the chordal contributions. On “Taxon” for instance, or the sequence consisting of “Pferdinant” followed by “Ga”, Kaufmann adroitly sets up the theme as if it’s the walls and foundations of a notable building, until the saxophonists’ snarling atonality and harsh multiphonics menace the structure as if they’re inclement weather or an unexpected earth upheaval. Dell’s vibe’s bar-scattering reflective tone colors at the climax(s) cement the segments into durable sturdiness though. In contrast the moody “Malm” could be a Jazz Messengers LP played at 45 rpm with Delius’ sharp clarinet tonguing adding enough startling dissonance to derail the piece until poised drum beats and piano pumps cheerfully push the vehicle back on track. Meanwhile “Blumer” is organized like a gentle chamber piece with first vibes, then piano and finally swaying horns voicing the melody. But blandness is overcome with a drum stomp that injects percussive adrenaline into the formerly low-energy performance.

Grund means “ground” in German. By mixing a groundswell of sly contributions from the musicians within compositions fully grounded in the jazz-improv tradition, the drummer elevates this session closer to the peak than ground level.

Tracks: Tatul; Kinet; Blumer; Malm; Für Beate; Taxon; Flux; Für Gerd; Pferdinant; Ga; Noneee

Personnel: Pierre Borel: alto saxophone; Tobias Delius: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Achim Kaufmann: piano; Christopher Dell: vibraphone; Jonas Westergaad and Robert Landfermann: bass; Christian Lillinger: drums, percussion

—For The New York City Jazz Record April 2016