Hannes Zerbe Quintett

September 12, 2022

Live im A-Trane Berlin
JazzHausMusilk 290 CD

New World
Nakama Records NKM 022 CD

There’s almost a half century gap separating the birth dates of the chief  composer and player on each of these Northern European quintet dates. Although each approach and voicings sound in a particular manner there’s inventive consistency to both sets.

Known for his early work with the likes of  Conrad Bauer and long-constituted Jazz Orchestra, German pianist Hannes Zerbe ( b. 1941) put together this group, consisting of clarinetist Jürgen Kupke, alto saxophonist Nico Lohmann, bassist Horst Nonnenmacher and drummer Christian Marien for a Berlin club date. All have experience with the larger ensemble Zerbe leads, and many other bands, including the drummer who has recorded with Eve Risser. Meanwhile Norwegian bassist Christian Meaas Svendsen (b. 1988) composed all the material for the cooperative Nakama group, filled out by clarinetist Andreas Røysum, clarinetist/saxophonist Klaus Ellerhusen Holm pianist Ayumi Tanaka and drummer Andreas Wildhagen.

Tellingly while both Zerbe and Svendsen temper hard improvisations with other sounds genres, there’s no overlap. Live im A-Trane Berlin’s eight tracks feature embellishment from more conventional and melody-directed notated music, while New World’s nine tracks lean towards microtonal and spatial sounds. Svendsen vocalizes a booming Zen Buddhist chant on “Gaki”, with hints of Norwegian folk music elsewhere, while some of Zerbe’s sprightlier compositions recall marching band tropes and Saxon folklore. Finally whereas the German disc was recorded live, the Norwegian set includes some post-production dial twisting, with a few electronic crackles aurally obvious.

Touches of Saxon martial music come from the Zerbe group as early as the introduction to track one, with a selection of reed flutters, squeals and tongue slides in double counterpoint, press rolls and string smacks populating the middle section until the band marches back to the bouncy head. The circle is completed with the concluding “Part XVIII”. Syncopated beats are emphasized throughout the tune with a pounding beat provided by Marien’s ruffs and piano comping, as the glissandi from the sax and clarinet suggests Cool Jazz meets Klezmer. In between  the first and last tracks, Zerbe demonstrates his keyboard command with perfectly shaped notes for a lyrical output on gentler pieces like “Monalisa” or blazes a trail of hardened keyboard smacks on the raucous “Mahlere”. “Monalisa”, the lengthiest track, matches linear piano chording with thin clarinet puffs and aching alto saxophone trills that could have come from Jimmy Hamilton and Johnny Hodges respectively. However the emotional trilling doesn’t become bathetic as the adagio exposition is replaced by repeated  clanks and double bass pops leading to dual rhythmic plinking until the piano and horns intertwine for a relaxed ending. A different matter “Mahlere” features an overlay of tough piano comping introducing a theme with Saxon, Balkan and Cool Jazz echoes, Reed split tone break up the fluidity and soon the pianist appears to be quoting from “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”  with ragged allusion to martial themes. Parts of this pseudo-military hymn remains even as Zerbe works to a final climax with snatches of formalism and stop-time also heard. Each musicians is involved throughout as well, with Marien making the most of an extended drum feature on one track and Nonnenmacher’s steady pulse used to emphasize and toughen the narratives.

There are some steady pulses on New World. But the suite is characterized more by changes in tempo, pitch and balance. “L-e” starts things off, taking its shape from reed counterpoint with Røysum’s basement-pitched clarinets providing a juddering counterpoint and Holm’s restrained alto saxophone buzzing contrasting with Tanaka’s unperturbed expressive pianism and Wildhagen’s drum rumbles. After both reeds wail at higher pitches a thick double bass thrust reintroduces the pianist’s processional theme. Svendsen’s guttural gurgles dominate the following track, though once both reedists’ subterranean blowing is added it’s often difficult to distinguish one from the other. It’s also unclear whether the rasping growls relate to Asian, Scandinavian or other musics. However the result, luckily leavened by keyboard plinks and drum accents, come across as an admixture of textures from Native American chants, Hebrew davening and pressurized blows from a didgeridoo or a vuvuzela.

Centrepiece of the suite however is the more-than-17-minute title track. Weaving strands post-production electronic crackles into the mix, the defined contrast is between woodwind airiness and rhythm section density. As querulous reed tones continuously propel  the top layer of the program with airy peeps and toneless breaths, bowed bass pressure, heavy drum resonations and stressed keyboard rigidity more percussive than the bass and drums take up the lower stratum. After reverberating piano soundboard echoes add to drum accents the bottom section gradually subsumes aviary saxophone peeps. Within the confines of the paradigm the arrangements and individual musicians’ output express levels of cooperation and division but with the purposeful discordant sequences connected as musical brush strokes on the larger canvas. There are instances of low-pitched dramatic interface at a lento tempo as pinpointed piano chiming and cymbal clashes puncture the tune from among inflating tugboat-like  horn blasts (“Lament”) and others where cymbal and drum top accents create a counterpoint to the harmony produced by thin clarinet glissandi and warm bass clarinet chalumeau tones to maintain horizontal flow (“Æ-b”). There are  other times when expositions are slow and sensuous, dependent on horn harmonies and sweetened keyboard tones; and still others when expanded split tones, double tonguing, flattement and scoops from the reeds suggest both nursery rhymes at their most innocent and Free Jazz burbles at their most frenetic.

Taking both sets together it’s obvious that maturing composers and veteran one can produce equally fruitful take on that meld of modern composed and improvised music – but with a few added surprises.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live: 1. Chronos 2. Pasacaglia für David 3. Mahlerei 4. Trio Kunz  5. Monalisa 6. Stiller 2 7. Lydische Ballade 8. Part XVIII

Personnel: Live: Jürgen Kupke (clarinet); Nico Lohmann (alto saxophone); Hannes Zerbe (piano); Horst Nonnenmacher (bass) and Christian Marien (drums)

Track Listing: New: 1. L-e 2. Gaki 3. Æ-b 4. Empty Day 5. Benign 6. New World 7. Ladders 8. Lament 9. Hosono

Personnel: New: Klaus Ellerhusen Holm (Bb, Eb clarinets, alto, baritone saxophones); Andreas Røysum (Bb, bass, contrabass clarinets); Ayumi Tanaka (piano); Christian Meaas Svendsen (bass) and Andreas Wildhagen (drums)