Coinciding with Peter Kowald’s 70th birthday, Jazzwerkstatt has released a box set to commemorate the legacy of the late double bassist. Across four discs, music from a variety of contexts and time periods is presented, including previously unreleased music and badly needed reissues of 1990’s The Human Aspect and 1997’s Aphorisms: 26 Statements on the Situation. This music, combined with the gorgeous, exhaustive discography book that gives the set its name, makes Discography an essential celebration of Kowald’s formidable musicianship and the impressive company he kept over a nearly 40 year career.
“I want to play simple and complex at the same time. This is one of those contradictions that may never resolve, but it remains a good ideal,” Kowald once told Michael Heffley while Heffley was working on his book Northern Sun, Southern Moon. It’s an ideal he would chase until his premature death. Perhaps the closest Kowald got to a resolution was in solo performance, where the simplest of ensembles—the musician and his instrument—attempts to convey all the intricacies of that lonesome pairing. The first disc in Discography opens with such a performance, a previously unreleased solo set from 1981. As was typical with Kowald, complexity abounds: it’s 35 minutes of spirited, technically deft bass playing. Kowald was equally at home with pizzicato and arco playing, often coaxing and juxtaposing multiple simultaneous sounds out of the bass, overlapping layers of notes and harmonics. His approach was telescopic: zooming in and out, at once adjusting the focus on some fine, nuanced detail, and just as readily spinning the dial back to bring the larger instrument into view.
Later in his conversation with Heffley, Kowald said that he thought of improvised music as “having [a] strong element of both process and decision”—that improvising is as much about the process of sound-making as it is about deciding when and how to change that process. This is true not only in the moment of improvising, but also across the arc of a career, in choosing projects and collaborators. Kowald was a ceaseless collaborator, one of the original globe-trotting free jazz-men that served as the template for today’s musicians. While the diversity and sheer breadth of his partnerships may not be apparent in the musical component of Discography, it does reflect some of his most fruitful and lasting relationships with musicians like Conny Bauer, Günter ‘Baby’ Sommer, and Floros Floridis.
Despite some negligible disappointments (the short Smith/Kowald/Sommer track is hardly representative of the trio, and Kowald’s featured tracks from Grandmother’s Teaching are strange relics of tasteless 80s production), Discography’s four discs of music are of strikingly high quality. On the second disc, a cheeky quartet of Kowald, Bauer, Floridis, and Andrew Cyrille saunter through Bauer’s “Blau Blusen Blues,” Kowald’s strolling bassline underpinning the horns as they playfully subvert traditional jazz tropes. This is the first taste of Floridis, an under-appreciated musician whose lively, whip-smart reeds lend Discography much of its strength. He appears alongside the equally brilliant Vincent Chancey on The Human Aspect (the third disc), a French horn powerhouse who’s played with Sun Ra, Lester Bowie and Carla Bley among others, and who penned most of the tunes present here. His wistful, virtuosic solo on “The Spell” is a highlight. As much as it celebrates Kowald, Discography is also to be commended for rescuing these documents of Floridis and Chancey.
The set is capped with the aptly titled Aphorisms, 26 impeccably distilled nuggets of improvisational wisdom from the trio of Kowald, Floridis, and Sommer. The tracks rarely exceed two minutes, and cover an impressive amount of ground, from chimes and throat singing one minute to Middle Eastern clarinet and hand drums the next. Each “aphorism” is a decisive statement—perhaps a perfect encapsulation of Kowald’s formula from above—the execution of a musical idea just long enough to establish it clearly before wiping the slate clean and starting anew. The album was the result of two days of recording, and while the short pieces may represent creative edits culled from longer improvisations, their brisk, assertive nature is refreshing, even after nearly 20 years.
Great as it is, the real gem of this set is not the music, however. It’s the sleek, full-color, 208 page discography booklet, lovingly and painstakingly compiled by Klaus Kürvers. Kowald’s every appearance on record is chronologically represented here: from the earliest recordings with a Brötzmann-led quartet in November of 1965, to his final trio work with Alberto Braida and Giancarlo Locatelli a mere six days before his heart stopped suddenly in late 2002. Each recording gets a full page treatment, including cover art, musician information, track names and times, recording details, reissue art and information, and more. Also included are a filmography, essays and interviews (unfortunately for me in German, but this is a German release, after all), and some of Kowald’s artwork (which includes the striking cover art). Frankly, I’ve never encountered anything quite like it.
The index of musicians in the back of the discography is perhaps the most telling: a list of over 400 musicians and groups that Kowald appeared on record with (imagine the thousands of concerts, the hundreds of other musicians, dancers, artists who aren’t captured by this list). The list contains just about any name from this music you could dream of—a testament to how far Kowald’s reach was, to his solid legacy as one of the musicians who truly laid the groundwork for the global improvised music of the present.
In the end, the best compromise between simple and complex was forged in Kowald’s dialogue with others. As Discography makes clear, whether alone or with partners, Kowald was engaged in a ceaseless exploration not only of the capabilities of the bass, but of this very music and its players, probing the full spectrum of its character from the most essential forms to the limits of musical recognition. He is sorely missed.
- Peter Kowald solo (previously unreleased, 1981)
- Peter Kowald, Wadada Leo Smith, Günter ‘Baby’ Sommer (previously unreleased, 1981)
- Peter Kowald, Conny Bauer, Floros Floridis, Andrew Cyrille (previously unreleased, 1989)
- Wolfgang Schmidtke, H.-P. Salentin, Ludwig Götz, Tobias Becker, Jan Kazda with Peter Kowald and Marilyn Mazur (from Grandmother’s Teaching, 1987)
- Vincent Chancey, Floros Floridis, Peter Kowald, Louis Moholo-Moholo (The Human Aspect, 1990)
- Floros Floridis, Peter Kowald, Günter ‘Baby’ Sommer (Aphorisms, 1997)