November 26, 2018
The Reform Art Unit
For John Coltrane and Pablo Picasso
Voves Production CD 90001 (1969/1995)
The Reform Art Unit
M Production CD 20011-1 (1970)
To Federico Fellini
Granit Records GR 94004 (1984/1985)
The Reform Art Unit
Granit Records GR 93001(1993)
The Reform Art Quartet
Homage to Arnold Schönberg and Anton von Weber
Granit Records GR 98011 (1997)
The Reform Art Unit/Masters of Unorthodox Music
Something about Vienna
No Label No # (2014)
The continental Indian parable about the six blind men trying to describe an elephant by reporting on whichever part of the animal each could touch could also be applied to trying to define the musical creations of Vienna’s Reform Art Unit (RAU). Extant since 1965 and always featuring the reeds and other instruments of Fritz Novotny, the RAU has drawn on currents of Free Jazz, notated music, funk, noise, pseudo-rock and less identifiable strands to create an original oeuvre. With this work spread over about 52 odd – and often very odd – LPs, cassettes and CDs, with or without guests, and with several extended gaps from the 1970s to the 1990s, any analysis, like the conclusions of the sightless with the pachyderm is bound to be incomplete.
Accepting those limitations, examining five representative CDs with tracks from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 21st century provides some instances of musical cohesion and carry over as well as tropes unique to the RAU.
Coupling three performances by one of the earliest iterations of the group from 1969, with a single track with an expanded ensemble from 1995 is For John Coltrane and Pablo Picasso.
The three-part title track featuring a core unit of Novotny playing soprano saxophone, flute, percussion, Sepp Mitterbauer’s piano and trumpet, plus bassist Toni Michlmayr and drummer Walter M. Malli is very much of its time, apparently taking inspiration from the classic John Coltrane quartet. That means bebop-to-modal modal piano patterns; pile-driver drum ruffs, sulk ponticello string sprawls and sharpened reed bites are there in profusion. In retrospect “Two” is the most notable track, since during its course, Mitterbauer’s subtle swing orientation turns to icy explorations of unexpected piano quadrants, until in the piece’s penultimate minutes he switches to trumpet, bringing out Don Cherry-like tone fluttering that is appropriately matched by split tone moans from Novotny’s soprano. By the time the pseudo-suite ends however the RAU for the first time has staked out its own unique territory, with double stopping fluidity from the bassist, dynamic piano pressure and disintegrating vibrations from the saxophonist. And it’s on this base that subsequent programs are built.
A detour into faux-exoticism by emphasizing the twanging buzz of Ram Chandra’s sitar muddies the aural picture slightly on 1970’s Darjeeling. Luckily rather than going full Raga-Jazz-Rock, Chandra’s contributions here quickly become acculturated within the RAU’s general musical gestalt. More importantly the addition of Giselher Smekal on piano, allows Mitterbauer to concentrate on trumpet where his improvising is more relaxed, expressive and dramatic than it had been a year earlier. Similarly moving between processional chording and cascading explosions the pianist’s input also appears to loosen up the others. Dark chords from the pianist supplemented by rolling percussion slides and the sitar stylist plucking as much as the double bassist finally create a unique East-West climax, where a top layer of swelling flute tone and muted trumpet riffs confirms the ensemble’s identity.
Flash forward to 1984-1985, and with To Federico Fellini the RAU, here called Wide Fields, becomes an octet, with a change in the rhythm section, plus the addition of Linda Sharrock’s vocals, guitar, tenor saxophone and most importantly the violin and piano of multi-instrumentalist Paul Fields, who would be part of the RAU from then on. Oddly enough the populist touches via guitar and vocals don’t add much to the distinctive RAU ethos that had been defined almost 20 years earlier. In fact a track like “Energy 1+2” sounds as if the animation comes not from Novotny on soprano saxophone and Stefan Slupetzky on tenor saxophone approximating the John Coltrane- Pharoah Sanders dual reed timbral steamrolling, but from Jazz-Rock Fusion with the reed parts appearing as if they’ve been grafted from a Weather Repot session onto this disc. Soon, the crackles and flanges of Franz Scharf’s guitar, Hannes Groysbeck’s electric bass and even Fields’ keyboard slurs reach a crescendo of exaggerated bravado that would have impressed Keith Emerson. Although they too could have wandered in from a soundtrack session, other tracks like “Pannonian Impression 1+2” and “To Federico Fellini” add a background flow while also maintaining links with the improvised music continuum. The second one mixes clambering piano pedal pushes and a slightly askew soprano saxophone into a theme that reflects the Italian movie master’s sleek obsessions. Meanwhile “Pannonian Impression 1+2” uses subtle guitar lick emulations that stretch from Johnny Smith to John Scofield styles to challenge kinetic piano and emphasized drumming. Meanwhile oboe-like reverberations are heard in such a manner that they connect the dots to equally adumbrate Jazz and soundtrack traditions.
By 1993 on 55 Steps the RAU’s creative output has swollen and splintered to the point that the seven selections must be divided among performances by septets, octets and nonets, with each aggregation making its presence felt in an individual manner. On “Segment 1 Septet”, with strings prominent and the sucking and plunger explorations of Mitterbauer’s trumpet in the forefront, the menacing theme meanders in such a manner that references to so-called classical music and the freest Jazz are both shoehorned into the narrative, helped not immeasurably by pinpointed riffs from Leena Conquest’s wordless vocals. Although the fit may somewhat strained the tremolo finale strikes a happy note between the two strains. In contrast “Segment 3 Octet”, which adds the violin of Mia Zabelka and features Fields on soprano saxophone plus Mario Rechtern and Novotny on various reeds, relates most closely to unbridled Free Jazz. Mixing organ-chord-like resonations, upfront percussion with glockenspiel peals, reed smears and what could be banjo plucks and kazoo blats, the ensemble attains a polyphonic point of no-return, yet manages to create a suitable ending. Confirming the idea that additional numbers contribute to the proclamation of musical freedom, a track like “Segment 2 - Nonet” roils and rappels among contributions that include reed burbles, violin stopping, a trumpet that appears to be playing “Taps”, string squeaks and Conquest’s frequent vocal interjections that are both guttural and glorious,
Skip forward four years and with Homage to Arnold Schönberg and Anton von Weber, the RAU has slimmed to the Reform Art Quartet where the core members play several instruments each so as to outline three instant compositions in homage to these early 20th Century Austrian composers. Perhaps it’s because of shared Viennese roots, but the quartet – with Mitterbauer on trumpet, Novotny playing clarinet, soprano saxophone, flute, cymbals, glockenspiel, gongs, khene, Fields playing violin and piano and Karl W. Krbavac on viola da gamba and piano –manages to probe a Jazz-like vein in the music which these Serialists would likely have never imagined. One of the highpoints occurs on the satirically titled “Miniatures for Quartet Op. 97/1-3 Scherzo”, where the clanks and click from high-pitched glockenspiel gave way to a slow-moving, almost classically-proper piano and violin theme that is quickly interrupted by strident penny whistle and fiddle splashes. As the sequence evolves into adopting warmer group harmonies, a relaxed and polished counter theme from the trumpeter introduces a quasi-sonata from the string players whose multi-stops develop into further romantic coloration aided by one of the pianist's exposition. Of course this faux-romanticism is only possible since the introductory mid-range “Miniatures for Quartet Op. 97/1-3 Allegro non Troppo” has already exposed subtle Jazz linkages with pugnacious keyboard pushes, plunger trumpet spills and pizzicato string plucks. Incredibly, even as the powerfully stropped strings and speedy and slurring clarinet tones move the program into 21st Century Free Music, the graceful and moderato continuum that joins those sounds to ones suggested by the 12-tone specialists influences from earlier so-called classical music are also apparent.
The RAU’s Janus-headed conception of synthesizing past and future textures has continued unabated into the 21st Century, as the ensemble expands and shrinks, often adding new and younger players and continuing to expand its recorded performances. A representative set from 2014 is, not surprisingly called Something about Vienna, is two-CDs split with the Masters of Unorthodox Music (MOUM), an equally venerable Austrian combo, whose membership, like early Modern Jazz Quartet and Milt Jackson Quintet combos frequently overlapped with that of the RAU. Of special note is the MOUM’s first untitled track, where sitter-ins Novotny and Mitterbauer help blow away the more historic trappings of an ensemble including such orchestral stand-bys as harp and bassoon. An escalating brass cry segmented into brief, bent-note blasts allow the brass players to engage in a duet with the bassoonist’s dissonant smears, even as contrasting dynamics from the pianist threatens to undermine the more formalist continuum. Finally harsh flute shrilling shatters the moderated group momentum to climax with percussive clanking which adumbrates the subsequent music from both bands. Notable too are the RAU tracks which are well paced with slow-burns and explosions given equal prominence.
This CD marked one of the final appearances of Mitterbauer (1946-2015), who was as linked to the RAU and Novotny as Laurel was to Hardy. But the ensemble continues, presenting concerts in Vienna every few weeks and amassing an oeuvre that starts to resemble Sun Ra’s in innovation eclecticism and sheer numbers. Many of the discs can also be thought of as a cumulative elegy for the trumpeter in fact. For some listeners the large scale 1970s works might be the most appealing, to others the stripped down Homage to Arnold Schönberg and Anton von Weber might be the most representative. Other than that, there are further sessions featuring American guests like Sunny Murray and Anthony Braxton.
For the adventurous an investigation into the RAU’s multiple discs may prove fruitful. It may even result in a long-term commitment. Again as with Sun Ra, you never know what individual surprises may be in store when any individual RAU program is uncovered.
Track Listing: For: 1, For John Coltrane and Pablo Picasso 2. For John Coltrane and Pablo Picasso 2 3. For John Coltrane and Pablo Picasso 3 4. Human Closely
Personnel: For: Fritz Novotny (soprano saxophone, flute, percussion); Sepp Mitterbauer (piano, trumpet); Toni Michlmayr (bass); Walter M. Malli (drums) [track 4: Mitterbaue; Paul Fields, (violin, alto saxophone); Novotny; Mario Rechtern (sopranino, alto and baritone saxophones, oboe, self-made reeds); Sandra Miori (tenor saxophone); Karl W. Krbavac (viola da gamba); Reinhard Ziegerhofer (bass); Sunny Murray (drums); Helmut Schiefer (percussion)
Track Listing: Darjeeling: 1, Darjeeling First Part 2. Darjeeling: Second Part
Personnel: Darjeeling: Sepp Mitterbauer (trumpet); Fritz Novotny (soprano saxophone, flute, percussion); Giselher Smekal (piano); Toni Michlmayr (bass); Walter Muhammad Malli (drums); Ram Chandra (sitar)
Track Listing: Homage: 1. Pannonian Impression 1+2 2. Rock In 3. The Woodpecker and The Goose 4. To Federico Fellini 5. Wide Fields 6. Energy 1+2
Personnel: Homage: ; Sepp Mitterbauer (trumpet); Fritz Novotny (clarinet, soprano saxophone, flute, handheld bells); Stefan Slupetzky (tenor saxophone); Paul Fields, (violin, keyboards); Franz Scharf (guitar); Hannes Groysbeck (electric bass, groysophon); Robert Steiner (drums); Linda Sharrock (vocal)
Track Listing: 55: 1. Segment 1 Septet 2. Segment 2 Nonet 3. Segment 3 Octet 4. Segment 4 Nonet 5, Segment 5 Quartet 6. Segment 6 Nonet 7. Segment 7 Septet
Personnel: 55: Sepp Mitterbauer (trumpet); Fritz Novotny (clarinet, soprano saxophone, flute, glockenspiel, Indian snake charmer ,khene, one-string unit, sanza); Mario Rechtern (sopranino, alto and baritone saxophones, oboe, self-made reeds); Paul Fields, (violin, soprano saxophone); Mia Zabelka (violin); Karl W. Krbavac (viola da gamba); Reinhard Ziegerhofer (bass); Walter Schiefer (drums, percussion)
Track Listing: Homage: Miniatures for Quartet Op. 97/1-3 1. Allegro non Troppo 2. Scherzo 3. Finale
Personnel: Homage; Sepp Mitterbauer (trumpet); Fritz Novotny (clarinet, soprano saxophone, flute, cymbals, glockenspiel, gongs, khene); Paul Fields (violin, piano); Karl W. Krbavac (viola da gamba, piano)
Track Listing: Something: CD1 (RAU): 1. Untitled 1 2. Untitled 2 3. Untitled 3 4. Untitled 4 5. Untitled 5 6, Untitled 6. Untitled 6. CD2: (MOUM): 1. Untitled 1 2. Untitled 2 3. Untitled 3 4. Untitled 4 5. Untitled 5 6, Untitled 6. Untitled 6 7.1. Untitled 7 8. Untitled 8
Personnel: Something: CD1: Sepp Mitterbauer (trumpet); Fritz Novotny (soprano saxophone, flute); Paul Fields, (electric violin); Yedda Chunyu Lin (electric piano); Nikolas Dolp (drums) CD2: Sepp Mitterbauer (trumpet); Fritz Novotny (soprano saxophone, flute); Aladeddin Aldernest (bassoon); Karl W. Krbavac (viola da gamba); Katharina Pechoc (piano) Nikolas Dolp (drums)