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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

New Jazz Festival Balver Höhle (New Jazz 1974 & 1975) (B. Free, 2016) ****

By Colin Green

In 1974, at short notice, Karlheinz Klüter organised a jazz festival in the unlikely setting of the Balve Cave in the Hönne valley of the Sauerland. A great success, it was repeated in following years. On this mammoth 11 CD box set we have much of the music performed at the first and second festivals, which each ran from Friday to Sunday. The first day was reserved for Hot (trad) Jazz (omitted from the collection) and the weekend for New Jazz, encompassing a broad range of contemporary jazz from Germany and further afield. The resonant but not cavernous, acoustic was vividly captured by Cologne’s WDR – European radio recording engineers are some of the finest in the world. A selection from the festivals was previously available on a 4 LP set (JG-Records, 1975). A handsome booklet is included, with photographs of performers and audience, and press cuttings from the time, some with English translations.

Most of the pieces are named “Improvisation”, and although there are many different kinds of improvisation to be heard, I suspect this is simply the default title where none has been supplied, or it is unknown. There are some errors and quirks: for CD5, what are listed as tracks 6 to 8 are in fact tracks 1 and 2 on CD6; The Contact Trio’s set is a single track, but is clearly five separate pieces, and the several numbers that made up the Gary Burton Quintet’s performance are arbitrarily divided into three tracks. Some, though not all, of the spoken introductions to each set are separately banded, and the booklet contains a photo of a bald vibes player, named as Gary Burton but I’m sceptical, unless his toupee had fallen off.

Presented chronologically by day (though not in the original batting order) and musically, of a high standard throughout, the collection offers a snapshot of sorts, and a reminder of the healthy scene which had developed in West Germany at the time. The audiences are large and enthusiastic, sounding more like a rock gig than the usual smatter of polite handclaps which greet performers of free jazz. For obvious reasons, German youth had rejected anything associated with the culture of their parents in more definitive terms than elsewhere in Europe, resulting in a surge of interest in alternative music, much of which they were able to enjoy due to their parents’ post-war prosperity.

We open with the Contact Trio – Evert Brettschneider (electric guitar), Alois Kott (double bass), Michael Jüllich (drums) – a reminder that at this point in the Seventies, Jazz-Rock was still a potent force. They differ from a number of the fusion bands of the era however, being more loosely knit. The nimble guitar work and dexterous bass are virtuosic, but lack the frantic pyrotechnics and showboating others indulged in. This is an ensemble which sounds more fluid and satisfying.

Also from the fusion end of the scale is the Dutch keyboardist Jasper van’t Hof’s Pork Pie, a multinational band which also includes Americans Charlie Mariano (reeds, woodwind) and John Lee (electric bass), the Belgian Philip Catherine (electric guitar) and Italian Aldo Romano (drums). This is fusion made up from a wide range of ingredients, as can be heard on the forty minute main track, a succession of contrasting compositions which merge one into the next. Highlights include Mariano’s beautiful soprano saxophone over lush synthesizer and when he picks up the Nadaswaram, a huge Tamil wind instrument (there’s a photo in the booklet). There are some Mahavishnu moments: mid-tempo and melodic rather than speed of light blurs. The set ends with a cod-march, and generous applause which eventually brings the band back for a bluesy encore.

Gary Burton’s Quintet has Mick Goodrick and a very young Pat Metheny sharing guitar duties, and they open with Metheny’s ‘Phase Dance’, an early sign of the sweetly drawn vistas of Americana that would become his speciality. As often with live performances, there’s plenty of drive and bite but this doesn’t always benefit the music. There’s an out of place fuzz-bass solo from Steve Swallow, and at times it feels somewhat crowded, music better suited to a quartet – there’s no need for an extra guitar. The full melodic range of Burton’s vibraphone, with his subtle inflections and embellishments, is heard most clearly in his solo pieces during the set, a reminder that his music worked best in more intimate surroundings and without a drummer, such as his chamber pieces and duos with Chick Corea.

Jazzcrew Stuttgart provide an outstanding set, exhibiting an ability to move seamlessly between various points on the jazz compass.  The Septet consists of Herbert Joos and Frederic Rabold (flugelhorn, trumpet), Walter Hüber (soprano and tenor saxophones), Bernd Konrad (bass saxophone), Paul Schwarz (keyboards), Jan Jankeje (double bass) and Martin Bues (drums). In the second improvisation there’s a delicate brass chorus which alternates with weightless free passages The third and fourth pieces blend punchy rhythms, big band unisons, free jazz blowouts and blues hollers, and there’s a blistering bass sax solo. The electric piano, an instrument often reduced to textured tinkles, is nuanced and expressive, and even the drum solo bears repeated listening.

From Britain, we have SOS, three master saxophonists: John Surman, Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore, sounding like nothing the audience would have heard before. In addition to spanning the whole choral range (soprano, alto, tenor and bass saxophones) there’s also Surman’s then innovative use of an EMS synthesizer which contained a small sequencer allowing loops to be stored, repeated and transposed, a method he explored further on his later albums for the ECM label. Surman had learnt this technique while working with Groupe de Recherche Choregraphique de l'Opera de Paris, writing contemporary dance music. These cyclic repetitions still sound startling as they fade in at the outset and are used to great effect in the first few numbers. They clearly inspired the structure of the trio’s music, a dense contrapuntal weave of expanding and contracting patterns, in unison and overlapping, which owe more to Renaissance polyphony than standard jazz, and take as their starting point material as diverse as a folk jig and a calypso melody. There is room for jazz however, including a scorching passage on alto from Osborne, backed by Skidmore’s surprisingly adept drumming and Surman’s fuzzy keyboards. Fittingly, though listed as “Improvisation 4’ the encore’s an arrangement of the Contrapunctus from Bach’s ‘Die Kunst der Fuge’ (The Art of Fugue). The trio recorded its eponymous and only album the following year (Ogun, 1975) with Surman laying down his electronics at an earlier session (recommended).

Moving on to the free jazz side of things, there’s the combustible mix of Peter Brötzmann (reeds), Fred van Hove (piano) and Han Bennink (drums, bits and bobs). Proceedings are announced with Bennink’s military march rolls, sounding like he’s approaching the stage from the audience, turning deviant with van Hove’s pounding chords and Brötzmann’s shrieking clarinet. Bizarrely, Bennink begins the second piece in the same way but Brötzmann puts a stop to this with his angry tenor, and we move into the skewed universe the trio seemed to occupy, the only connecting thread being the kinetic energy with which they blasted through everything in sight – van Hove’s cluster runs, Brötzmann’s out of range reeds, Bennink on howling hosepipe (one of his favourite devices) and clattering drums – a mixture of standard trap kit and more exotic percussion – which booms round the Cave, to the approval of the audience. Amongst this mayhem, Bennink never misplaces a beat. There’s plenty of parody: bar room songs, flatulent and fragmented ballads on bass saxophone, etc. but the problem is, quite intentionally, a lot of this can’t be taken seriously, it no longer shocks, and it’s difficult to laugh. The spectacle of three very talented men spending most of their time on stage fucking about is something you really had to be there for. The raucous crowd certainly enjoyed it.

The set by the Dieter Scherf Trio – Scherf (saxophone), Jacek Bednarek (double bass), Bulent Ates (drums) – is a gem, again consisting of two improvisations but banded as one. Scherf had been a member of Free Jazz Group Wiesbaden, which had recorded the two legendary Frictions albums, and who appeared at the 12th German Jazz Festival in 1970 (reviewed by Paul yesterday). This trio hums with carefully modulated energy and sounds so fresh it could have been recorded last week. There are traces of Coltrane in Scherf’s treatment of melody but he’s a good example of a musician who’s absorbed his influences in order to develop something new. Bednarek plays mostly bowed bass, and his contributions are telling. The trio (with Paul Lovens replacing Ates on drums) recorded Inside-Outside Reflections (LST, 1974) that year, a set of focussed studies and also outstanding. It’s a great pity we don’t have more of Scherf’s work on record.

From Holland, there’s ICP’s Misha Mengelberg (piano) and Han Bennink (drums, anything else to hand). The duo specialised in anarchic dramas juxtaposing often incongruous genres (the Dutch have always had a thing about Dada). In the aptly titled ‘Suite’ motifs are rendered in the style of ragtime, silent cinema, Kurt Weill, atonal clusters, free jazz, and points between. It’s obvious from the applause and laughter that Bennink’s up to his usual tricks, but deprived of a visual element the cabaret routine loses its sense of irreverent fun. Both musicians are technically outstanding and full of invention but there are times when the music sounds like a succession of skilfully executed caricatures, contrived rather than organic. To contemporary ears, now familiar with this kind of post-modernist pastiche, trying on different headgear can seem rather old hat. As one would expect, their live performances were a bit hit and miss, but the studio recordings are well worth seeking out.

The Polish Jazz Summit is listed in the booklet as comprising Tomasz Stanko (trumpet), Zbigniew Namyslowski (saxophone, cello), Zbigniew Seifert (violin), Adam Makowicz (electric piano) and Janusz Stefanski (drums), though it’s clear that the piano’s not electric but the, by now, rather out of tune festival piano, and I’m sure I can hear an unidentified bass player. Their performance starts well with one of Stanko’s mournful dirges, dissolving into excellent solos from piano, saxophone and trumpet. Things become disappointing when Namyslowski switches to cello and there’s a string duet. Both instruments are poorly amplified (the violin with wah-wah pedal) and sound hollow and scratchy, losing their distinctive timbres, and the occasional folksy turns are insufficient to retain any real interest as the piece loses its flow and wanders vaguely to a conclusion.

What is billed as the “Franz Koglmann Quintet - Steve Lacy Quintet” is in fact, one quintet, which had recorded the fine Flaps (Pipe Records, 1973) the previous year, and they open with that Lacy composition. From the outset, Lacy (soprano saxophone) and Koglmann (trumpet) dissect and reconfigure tiny melodic cells, their incisions set against a counterfoil of tumbling bass (Toni Michlmayr) and drums (Muhammad Malli), and blurts, whooshes and swirls from Gerd Geier’s computer and electronics. During the central free form pieces, what resembles the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet forms a contrast to Koglmann and Lacy’s multiple refractions, but elsewhere, such as the opening chorale to ‘Der Vogel, Opium’, the electronics sound intrusive. The Quintet closes with Lacy’s ‘Life on its Way”, a hypnotic repetition of a descending four note figure, fading into electrostatic spluttering.

The collection from the second festival weekend doesn’t contain any German musicians. It would seem that some performed but there were contractual wrangles and late cancellations, and the Howard Johnson Tuba Ensemble didn’t appear as the money for their flight from America didn’t arrive on time. Although good, 1975 is not of the same standard as the previous festival.

From Czechoslovakia, there’s System Tandem, the duo of Jiri Stivin (reeds and woodwind) and Rudolf Dasek (guitar) who play a varied set of seven ‘improvisations’ with Stivin switching between soprano and alto saxophones, flute and piccolo, in a mixture of folk, jazz and rock. Clearly buoyed by the festival crowd, there are times when Dasek’s choppy guitar can get a little wearing.

Also from Czechoslovakia is the Gustav Brom Big Band (for some reason, labelled “The Brom Gustav Big Band” in the booklet) which might seem out of context in these surroundings, but if you couldn’t get to see Count Basie this would definitely do, and the audience laps it up. In fairness, there’s more to the band than that and ‘Suite for Gustav Brom’ is nicely varied, a colourful piece of orchestration with even occasional interspersions of free jazz.

The final Slavic contribution is from the Emil Viklický Trio, a piano trio which plays a short set, possibly in protest at the piano which sounds like it’s been borrowed from the local village hall, and is unimproved from the previous festival. This is unfortunate as the Bill Evansish ‘Choral’ is a lovely piece and František Uhlíř displays some delightful bass work.

The Krzysztof Zgraja - Barre Phillips duo is the unusual combination of flute and double bass, instruments from the top and bottom of the range, a format with which Zgraja was familiar having recorded an album of bass duets with a different bassist in Warsaw the previous year: Alter Ego (Polskie Nagrania Muza, 1974).Their improvisations are sectional, marked by changes of pace and texture, each focussing on particular techniques and timbres, juxtaposed and merging. As ingenious as the duo are, there’s not quite enough to support two half-hour improvisations.

Turning to Scandinavia, from Sweden there’s the Jan Wallgren Orkester, a quintet of Wallgren (piano), Tommy Koverhult (soprano and tenor saxophones, flute), Hakan Nyqvist (flugelhorn), Ivar Lindell (bass) and Ivan Oscarsson (drums). They play what might be described as polished and extremely accomplished post-bop, and nothing wrong with that. The main work is ‘Love Chant’, a piece the quintet had recorded two years earlier and which Wallgren was to subsequently re-record with a different line-up. Even at forty minutes and with extensive solos, including Wallgren’s exhilarating flourishes, this performance sustains interest throughout and is probably the version to have.

Finally, from distant Finland, there’s the Eero Koivistonen Quartet, who travelled a long way to play another short set of just over twenty minutes, assuming the collection contains everything they played. Again, I’d like to have heard more. This is the kind of sparse Euro-Jazz ECM specialised in at the time. ‘Clear Dream’ sets the scene with an opening duet for Olli Ahvenlahti’s rhapsodic piano and Koivistonen’s lean soprano saxophone, and there’s a pensive double bass solo from Pekka Sarmanto.

Apparently, though there were further jazz festivals at the Cave, the quality could not be maintained, so it’s especially valuable to have this extensive record of just how good things got.

In the absence of any live footage, here’s a video of someone opening and fumbling about with the contents of the box set:


Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

Great piece of work, very elaborate.
Where can you get the box and how much is it?

Colin Green said...

Discogs might be a good starting place, or you could Google it:

MJG said...

Another tempting release but does anyone know if these B.Free releases are authorised reissues? Are the musicians getting paid?

Colin Green said...

Clearly, these are authorised (expanded) reissues, not bootlegs. I imagine that all issues of payment to the musicians were agreed at the time of the festivals and the release of the original LPs. These were almost certainly one-off payments and it’s most unlikely further payments are now due. It’s quite possible that the musicians agreed that their festival fee included the only payment they were ever going to get. Acquisition of the sound recording for use on these particular releases was probably negotiated more recently, but that won’t have involved the musicians. Someone is thanked in the booklet to this set “for rights and tapes”.

Ernst Grgo Nebhuth said...

The producer of the label Micha Gottschalk has acquired all tapes, photographs etc. from the son of Karlheinz Klüter.
Another box-set from the Altena Jazz Festival is scheduled for this year. And more is in preparation for 2017.