Unser Baby wird 80: Sommerfest 2023
September 22-24, 2023
Review by Ken Waxman
Photos by Susan O’Connor
With increased lifespans and improvements in health, 80 is the new 40 for some people. That was no more evident than in Dresden in late September when German percussionist Günter “Baby” Sommer celebrated his 80th birthday with three days of concerts at the city’s Semper Zwei concert hall and basement Jazzclub Tonne. Playing with the vigor and enthusiasm of a drummer half his age or less, Sommer didn’t overload the celebrations with showy percussion displays. Instead, and as he has in the past during a career that stretches back to the 1960s, he ceded most of the sets to group collaborations. Cementing his acceptance of constant change, these collaborations were not only with veteran contemporaries, but also featured newer playing partners.
One of the most spectacular displays of this climaxed opening night at Semper Zwei, the modern second stage of the city’s famous Neo-Classical opera house, when Sommer led his 12-piece Brother & Sisterhood of Breath. Musicians involved were from Germany, Austria, Romania and Scotland, and included trumpeters Niklaus Neuser and Martin Klingeberg; trombonists Gerhard Gschlößle and Micha Winkler, and alto saxophonists Silke Eberhard, Anna Kaluza and Raymond MacDonald. Matthias Schubert played tenor saxophone, Gebhard Ullmann tenor saxophone and bass clarinet with pianist Uli Gumpert; bassist Robert Lucaciu, and Sommer.
Working off a double bass pulse that vibrated with multiple string pops and flat-fingered piano pumps, the group moved through themes that touched on South African kwela, Mingus-like gospel-blues shouts, Latin-affiliated asides and horn-heavy swinging vamps. Themes were propelled by Sommer’s brisk moves from even pacing, ecstatic tone clipping and hammered plops as he switched among brushes, mallets and sticks. As tunes evolved, he also added frame drum pumps, metal bowl pings and shook a net filled with bells and chimes. Until the final number, during which each band member slapped, ratcheted or blew into Sommer-distributed percussion implements, solos were liberally passed around on the players’ usual instruments.
Adding to the excitement of the moments, jousts among the reed and brass players were featured, with Gschlößl’s cup- muted slurs contrasted with Winkler’s balanced slides. Neuser’s clear brassiness complemented Klingeberg’s half-valve work and scat singing, while Schubert and Ullmann came across as a Teutonic Johnny Griffin and Eddie Lockjaw Davis with Bluesy tenor saxophone honks. Ulmann’s bass clarinet tongue slaps plus the alto saxophonists’ dissonant whines and multiphonic yelps underlined the unconventional unfolding of some tunes. Additionally MacDonald, who also leads the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, did double duty on one extended piece, moving in front of the players’ horizontal line-up and used conduction hand signals and even a leap into the air to emphasize that exposition’s turns and accents. This left Sommer free to time-keep. His march-like passages subtly joined Gumpert’s emphasized Blues chording for the final climax.
A similar group exhibition took place on the elevated stage of the spacious and subterranean Jazzclub Tonne during the festival’s concluding set, when Sommer was joined by what was billed as an All Star band with Germans Till Brönner (trumpet), Nils Wogram (trombone), Daniel Erdmann (tenor saxophone) and Romanian-German bassist Lucaciu. Acclaimed as a best-selling trumpeter/vocalist, Brönner was the biggest surprise, ostensibly putting aside his commercial direction to fire off bright tremolo blasts or subtle flutters in solos, or to fit in with the other horn players during unison expositions.
Adapting to pseudo-Dixieland group improvising, the three extended their harmonies so that the saxophonist’s sliding doits and hard-toned honks plus the trombonist’s mellow, hand-muted sighs or bright pecks joined trumpet portamento for layered expositions. Sometimes there were interludes of unaccompanied horn work. However, these brief forays were brought back into linear affiliations with loping cadences from the drummer’s subtle brush work and the bassist’s positioned triple stopping. Mellow promenades were more prominent than staccato jabs, with the sometimes exploratory sonic forays expressed by the Brother & Sisterhood of Breath put aside for a more relaxed interface. Still the high level of skill exhibited by all concerned made this showcase anything but a conventional performance.
Another group that moved past conventional tropes as a FreeBop combo was Günter Baby Sommer & die Brüder Lucaciu featured the previous night at the Semper Zwei. With Robert Lucaciu on bass again, he and Sommer were joined by his siblings, alto saxophonist Antonio Lucaciu and pianist Simon Lucaciu. Having toured and recorded in this formation, the brothers were ready to pump out high-octave sounds as soon as the drummer signalled the beginning by waving his red sweat towel and then slapping the snare with it as he did at the start of every set.
Attuned to Sommer’s backbeat Antonio snapped out Ornette Coleman/Albert Ayler-like staccato snarls and resounding multiphonics. However when Sommer switched to brushes for a pseudo-drum top sand dance, the saxophonist’s output descended from staccato bites to warm vibrations. The quartet’s more traditional sound evolution emphasized expected contexts with introductions, free variations and recapping of the head involved. Still this gave each Lucaciu scope to express his individual adaptability.
Bassist Robert’s seemingly ceaseless rhythmic plucks downshifted to measured stops when he connected with Sommer’s use of small, drum top skimming whisk brooms during a slowly evolving ballad. Additionally, Lucaciu’s unaccompanied col legno stops or arco sweeps cannily set up later theme resolution completed by drum rolls or piano key tinkles. Content to comp most of the time, pianist Simon demonstrates his affinity for both hard chording or delicate key- dusting when needed for boisterous or lyrical definition.
Expressing a melodic mixture in a unique fashion were two trios without Sommer that took the middle spot both nights at the Semper Zwei. Made up in the main of individuals who had previously worked with the drummer, both groups were specially constituted for Sommerfest, although the musical results were as inverse as their instrumentation.
On the first night Italian pianist Fabrizio Puglisi joined long-time playing partners, German violinist Gunda Gottschalk and Chinese sanxian and guzheng player Xu Fengxia for what was billed as a string trio, since the pianist spent almost as much time vibrating his instrument’s inner string set as on the keyboard. Completely free-form improvisations, the Clarinet Summit the next night was a first meeting among clarinetists of three countries and three generations: veteran Italian alto clarinetist Gianluigi Trovesi, 79; French-Dutch bass clarinetist Joris Roelofs, 39; and German clarinetist Julius Gawlik, 25.
Betraying no interloper’s hesitation, Puglisi’s inner string set invention locked in almost seamlessly with the others’ output. Meeting the violinist’s rather formalized glissandi with light rubs and string ricochets, his key slaps, note piling and use of whirling and buzzing toys above the soundboard were also perfect embellishments to set up Xu’s improvisations.
Playing in turn the sanxian (three-string Chinese banjo) and guzheng (multi-string Asian zither), Xu’s animation as she strummed, rubbed and clanked the strings extended to peppering solos with vocalized yelps, tongue clicks and cries. With instrumental sounds suggesting Far Eastern variants of Blues and traditional Country Music, her emotional commitment was so elevated so that at one point she seemed to be channeling revival-meeting speaking in tongues into the mix. Her verbal outpouring was so total, that the usually phlegmatic violinist even contributed the occasional scream. More appropriately the pianist countered Xu’s sometime voice-and-strings frenzy with thick keyboard pumps as well as hammering on and plucking the piano’s internal strings.
If the string trio were defined distinctively by Puglisi, Xu and Gottschalk, then the Clarinet Summit also demonstrated the variety of sounds that could be extracted from just three reed instruments.
Occasionally melodic and frequently stacking timbres for unison expression, rotation had Roelofs’ basement tones snoring out a continuum as the higher-pitched reeds peeped and trilled. Trovesi’s textures were the most dissonant, with leaps into altissimo runs and whole passages made up of key percussion and swift doits. Negotiating the octaves,
Gawlik regularly opted for horizontal expositions. But just as Trovesi produced lyrical interludes without hesitation, the others often layered into their expositions reed screams, sighs and dead air blown without key movement. Overall the sonic contrasts displayed by each was as notable as the broken octave parallel playing they often produced.
Trovesi was not the only one of Sommer’s contemporaries involved in the festival.
Pianist Gumpert, Sommer’s long-time associate in big bands and combos is 78. More significantly present was Wolf Biermann, whose fame as a protest singer-songwriter in the former East Germany and the Communist government’s subsequent stripping him of his citizenship in 1976, augured the area’s further liberalization. At 88, Biermann’s acoustic guitar playing is still notable, and for German-speakers his set of folksy new and old songs and between-songs banter, was both nostalgic and topical.
At the conclusion of the final concert in the Jazzclub Tonne, Sommer maintained that he expects to be headlining similar festivals to celebrate his 85th and 90th birthdays. In a world filled with potentially bleak future events, these are occasions worth anticipating.
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