By Tony Medici
I first made the acquaintance of the trio, Hyperactive Kid, at the Jazzwerkstatt Berlin-New York Festival, which took place over the Thanksgiving weekend, November 25-28, 2010, in New York City. The idea behind the festival, sponsored by the Jazzwerkstatt record label, was to bring the Berlin free jazz - creative improvisation scene to New York, which one might think is something like bringing coals to Newcastle. Be that as it may, I found the idea of the festival interesting enough to lure me away from turkey leftovers (okay, that was not too hard to do) and drive from Washington, DC to Brooklyn, to catch three days and four sets of the festival at the Irondale Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York. Before I talk about Hyperactive Kid (I will get there), I'll say a few words about the festival itself.
Having never been to Berlin, a deficiency I'd like to rectify someday soon, I can't say for sure that the festival brought the totality, or even the core, of the Berlin scene to the Big Apple, but I think it's safe to say that the musical line-up undoubtedly gave a very good representation of that scene. The inclusion of such veterans of the scene as Gunter Baby Sommer, Rolf Kuhn, and Ulrich Gumpert, was certainly welcome. More importantly, though, from a cultural and musical bridge-building perspective, it was a great opportunity to hear the rising generation of musicians, German or otherwise, who have made Berlin their primary scene: trombonists Gerhard Schlossl and Christof Thewes; bassists Jan Roder, Johannes Fink, and Jonas Westergaard; saxophonists Michael Thieke and Henrik Walsdorff; drummer Michael Griener, and, the members of Hyperactive Kid, tenor saxophonist Philipp Gropper, guitarist Ronny Graupe, and drummer Christian Lillinger.
Ulli Blobel, owner and impresario of Jazzwerkstatt, is to be commended for undertaking this no doubt challenging project. (I can only imagine what it would take to get the Downtown New York scene to Berlin for a holiday weekend. Someone should try it). The musical results more than justified the effort. Permit me a few quick observations. In this day and age of instant global communications (Internet, Twitter, Skype, My Space, Facebook, etc), not to mention globe-trotting musicians, it is almost surprising that that there can still be such a thing as an identifiable "local" scene (at least aside from New York).
Such a scene, like that of Berlin's, is shaped by the cultural and historical context of the country and city in which it takes place, the heritage of musical predecessors, as well as the individual talents and inclinations of the musicians performing in close quarters on a frequent basis. Thus, for instance, this rising generation of German musicians pays homage to older forms of German folk and popular music, even if at times to slyly poke fun at them. The festival musicians also showed a greater respect for form; free jazz rave-ups were mostly held in check. Such current trends of the New York scene as micro tonality and extended techniques seem not to have gained much traction with the Berliners; rather, they carry forward the robust sound and forceful styles of such forebears as Brotzmann and Mangelsdorff. There was undeniable energy and collegiality among the Berliners, but perhaps also a touch of insularity; that, of course, is a danger of a local scene. One would like to see its members take a greater part in the international stage. Finally, some individual performances stood out. Rolf Kuhn played with admirable intelligence and craft; even though his partners, Graupe and Lillinger, seemed not totally simpatico with Kuhn's objectives. And saxophonist Walsdorff summoned memories of a young Peter Brotzmann, as he tore though several pieces with compelling passion.
From Blobel's comments, it can be inferred that Hyperactive Kid is the pride of the Jazzwerkstatt stable. It is easy to see why: three young, attractive, and dynamic performers, with a potent group identity. Ronny Graupe, on 7-string guitar, with his rock-inflected, powerful, technique-to-spare posturing had me thinking of no less a musical godfather than Jimmy Page, although he doesn't go in for those trademark Page extended solos. But it seems like he could at any moment, if he so chose. One is also grateful to find a guitarist who does not sound like a Derek Bailey clone. Drummer Christian Lillinger might be a star in the making.
One rarely gets to describe anyone in the free jazz community as "glam," but it fits Lillinger, whose stage persona, at least, evokes comparisons to James Dean or Chet Baker. It's not just looks either; his intense and inventive drumming is in the Bennink tradition. He played more than well in a variety of settings aside from Hyperactive Kid. Saxophonist Gropper is a bit more of an undefined quality to me, although there is no doubt of his ability. In the festival performance, he tended to be overshadowed by Lillinger and Graupe, often serving as a mediator between his two more stylized colleagues. The balance is remedied on the CD, Mit Dir Sind Wir 4, which a German-speaking relative translates as "we are with you."
Here, equipoise is achieved among the members of Hyperactive Kid. Gropper shines more brightly, suggesting something of a young Mats Gustafsson. Indeed, the group has some similarities to The Thing, although the instrumentation of course differs a bit. More than The Thing, this group reminds me of Big Satan, Tim Berne's trio with Marc Ducret and Tom Rainey. The album contains seven tracks; four by Graupe, two by Gropper, and the remaining track by Lillinger. Three of the tracks are more than 10 minutes each, which allows some complex thematic and musical interplay; two other tracks near the ten-minute mark. No ballads here, although there are a few ruminative moments ("Neuron" and bits of "Csobanc"). The hallmarks of this album are speed, power, and agility. The music advances in stutter steps, nervous bursts of energy that seem to pulse rather than flow. The interplay is tight and bright. These guys are listening to each other all the time and playing off each other as if it was a game of three-player basketball.
The title is more than a lark; it seems to describe the basic posture of the group and the album. Like a jumpy kid confined to his bedroom, the music is energized yet also seems to be bouncing off the walls, which is to say, that, like the other Berliners, there is in the end, a respect for form or structure. There is a feeling of energy constrained; there is hardly a relaxed moment. This is not necessarily bad; listeners tend to get caught up in this energy field. Again like their Berlin compatriots, there is little in the way of extended techniques, which would be disappointing only to those who look for such things. The priorities are on edgy playing and the conveyance of energy. While the album is not essential, it is nevertheless very enjoyable. These are three musicians to watch.
The album is available from Amazon UK or eMusic: