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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A.R. Penck 1939–2017

By Lee Rice Epstein

Best known as a leader in the Neo-Expressionist movement, of which I am, admittedly, less familiar with, artist A.R. Penck also had a long career in free jazz. As a drummer and pianist, his music tended towards free, featuring long experimental improvisations that seem to barely hold together moment to moment, revealing themselves best at the macro level. There’s a rough beauty to a lot of Penck’s playing, a kind of raw and unfiltered play that isn’t always driving forwards. Penck primarily recorded with Frank Wollny as TTT (Triple Trip Touch). With TTT, Penck and Wollny recorded albums with, among others, Frank Wright, Lawrence “Butch” Morris, Jeanne Lee, Alan Silva, Billy Bang, Frank Lowe, Louis Moholo-Moholo, and Peter Kowald. Penck’s paintings serve as cover art for every album, gorgeous images going from dense, colorful pictorials to spare lettering on a plain background. It’s a fine metaphor for the playing itself, but there’s no one-to-one correlation with the art. Some of the sparsest covers decorate jam-packed material.

Although most of the recordings and sessions are undated, Penck and Wright’s dynamic partnership developed throughout the 1980s, after Wright had recorded his best-known albums. (Interesting side note, I’ve seen several comments over the years about whether or not these recordings are from the 1970s, likely because that decade is seen as the high water mark for free improvisation. But just based on the overall timeline, it’s almost certain that most of Penck and TTT’s output began in the ‘80s and continued on.) Their collaboration resulted in some of Wright’s most compelling playing. On Run With the Cowboys, Wright and Kowald join TTT for an outstanding firestorm of a session. And Concert In Ulm! with Wright, Penck, and Wollny is weird and wooly thing, with the trio breaking into a late take on Wright’s classic “Jerry.”

Likewise, the albums with Butch Morris showcase Morris’s playing more than his conduction, acting as something of a b-side to Morris’s main output. A 1991 triple-album—Hollywood Blvd. Concert: Holywood Blvd 89, Malibu-experiment, and Frank Wright—features both Wright and Morris in separate performances with Wollny and Penck. Recorded in 1989, shortly after Morris’s Conduction #11, Where Music Goes and just before Dust To Dust, the small groups with Morris captured on Holywood Blvd 89 and Malibu-experiment are outrageous in the best possible way. Wholly unpredictable, after a full album of breakneck improvisation, the opening of “Malibu Experiment,” with painter Markus Lüpertz guesting on piano and flute, features a gorgeous Morris melody that slowly gets chewed up and swallowed by Wollny and Penck’s absurd rhythms.

For anyone interested in free expression and abstract improvisation, you can fairly easily track down some of Penck’s albums. Although most of his music is now out of print, all the ones I mentioned, and many others, have been uploaded to the inconstantsol blog.

Stargarder 18, 1993


Anonymous said...

Wonderful review Lee and thank you for posting his art work. We have lost another master. Will be playing his music today.