By Nick Ostrum
At the risk of unintentionally making this sound conventional, Willisau is exactly what I have come to expect from contemporary free improv practiced by its finest practitioners. This is vanguard music, but it is not shocking. Recorded live at the legendary Willisau Jazz Festival in 2017, this album is dynamic, but it never reaches the ear-bleeding 11 of Nigel Tufnel or the raucous free-for-all of Globe Unity. Per pianist Jacques Demierre, the quartet’s approach focuses not just on freedom, but also on responsibility: “A kind of freedom where ‘free play’ means above all letting others play whatever they want, and as a ‘minimal’ position (recalling philosopher Ruwen Ogien’s notion of ‘minimal ethics’), never play anything that could possibly hinder them.” (For those of you interested or more prone to nineteenth century Anglophone philosophy, Ogien’s “minimal ethics” seems to be a contemporary take on John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism. Anyway…) The music is ludic (tracks are named “Monkeybusiness” 1 and 2, after all), but not in the carnivalesque way that the Dutch masters (Breuker, Bennink, ICP) are. It is engaging and, at times, catchy, but hardly euphonic. At times, melodic statements slowly develop out of simple, disparate sounds, but they are never fully realized. The whispered folksy reed-melody at around the 15-minute mark is a case-in-point. Here, when it verges too close to the mellifluous and too far beyond its rudimentary elements, it quickly dissolves into whistles, high-pitched beeps, and percussive piano chords.
Monkeybusiness 2 starts with a bluesy duo between saxophonist Urs Leimgruber and bassist Barre Philips that approaches a more recognizably jazz vernacular, albeit with all the squeaks and whistles of contemporary saxophone practice. This piece has a more classic, European free improv feel to it. After a false start a couple of minutes in, Demierre enters full force around the fourth minute, and analogue synth-virtuoso Thomas Lehn doubles and manipulates his piano, creating an echo effect. Phillips then falls into a folk melody that steers the track into muffled, dreamy territory. Lehn, then, breaks the trance with a string of clanky sci-fi sounds, which the rest of the band then counter with their own acoustic clanks and clumps, which, in turn, Lehn seems to refract. After some compelling back and forth, the track crescendos into a quartet of abstract, blocky melodic and rhythmic fragments. And then, it fades.
Impressively, through all of this kerfuffle, the musicians avoid any outright collisions or distracting tangents. Demierre may have planted this idea, but he, Leimgruber, Philips and Lehn do play impeccably well together. They jumble and interweave, but they also listen and respond. In other words, they deploy this minimalist ethics to maximum effect. The result is complex, variegated, clunky, distorted and absolutely beautiful.
Here is a video of the same group performing a year and a half later (August 2019) at Kaleidophone in Ulrichsberg, Austria. It should give you some idea of the listening experience you are in for with Willisau.