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Sunday, August 6, 2023

Tristan Honsinger (1949 - 2023)

Tristan Honsinger. Photo by Laura Sanson.

By Martin Schray

In February, an appeal for donations reached the free jazz world. Tristan Honsinger was seriously ill and no longer had the money to pay the expensive treatment costs he actually needed. He was also threatened with homelessness. Some money was quickly raised and shortly thereafter, there was even better news, as Honsinger received the $50,000 “Instant Award In Improvised Music“ prize. In June, Laura Sanson, who organized the fundraiser, wrote: “Tristan found an apartment in Trieste, he has the medicines he needs and he’s back touring and working! We are also waiting for his permanent visa in Italy! After this everything will be easier for him! He will get medical care and he will be able to keep on working as he was doing before.“ Everything looked like a turn for the better, but yesterday we got the news that the great American cellist, composer and all-round artist has passed away.

Tristan Honsinger was born October 23, 1949, in Burlington, in the U.S. state of Vermont. He began playing the cello from the age of nine, when he also had his first lessons. Later he studied at the prestigious New England Conservatory Of Music in Boston and then moved on to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. However, Honsinger became bored with the world of classical music and in 1969 he left for Montreal, where he avoided the draft and devoted himself to improvised music. When he discovered The Topography Of The Lungs, the seminal album by Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and Han Bennink, he was so inspired by this music that he decided to travel to the Netherlands in 1974, which changed his life forever since he became part first of the Dutch and later the whole European free improviser’s scene. First he started playing with Maarten Altena, Han Bennink, and Misha Mengelberg, and then he finally joined the Instant Composers Pool. He was also involved in the so-called Company Weeks, guitarist Derek Bailey’s collective improvisation sessions. This was the starting point for the connections to the English and German scene, e.g. to Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra.

Then, in the 1980s, Honsinger started his own projects, forging links with Italy. He lived in Florence for several years, where he collaborated with Giancarlo Schiaffini (Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza) and Gianluigi Trovesi and finally founded his own international group: This, That and the Other with (among others) Tiziana Simona, Sean Bergin, Toshinori Kondo, Jean-Jacques Avenel and Michael Vatcher.

Starting in 1988 he played regularly in various line-ups with pianist Cecil Taylor when the great pianist was regularly invited by FMP’s Jost Gebers, beginning with a series of concerts in Berlin in a trio with Evan Parker as part of the Cecil Taylor European Orchestra and later several of Taylor’s projects. What is more, he was part of the Cecil Taylor Quintet, a spectacular band with Harri Sjöström, Paul Lovens and Tempo Hauta-aho that was strangely under-documented as long as Taylor had lived.

In the 21st century, Honsinger was part of the Tobias Delius 4 Tet, various large and small groups around his long-time collaborator Sean Bergin and - of course - the ICP Orchestra. In addition, he was connected to the Berlin Echtzeit scene (e.g. with Olaf Rupp,Axel Dörner and Swedish bassist Joel Grip) and even lived in Berlin for a few years. 

Tristan Honsinger with Joel Grip Photo (c) Cristina Marx/Photo Musix
But apart from music Honsinger has always been famous for pairing jazz techniques with spoken word performances, folk music, improv theater and Dadaist elements. His extensive artistic output has always tried to combine music, theater, poetry, and visual art. His performances were very entertaining and full of humor.

For those who want to discover his music, his early duos are recommended: Duo with Derek Bailey (Incus, 1976), Live Performances with Maarten Altena (FMP, 1977) and Lavoro with Sean Bergin (Centro Attivita Musical, 1981). His string-based quintet Map of Moods (FMP, 1996) with Ernst Glerum (bass), Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums), and violinists Aleksander Kolkowski and Stephan Lunardi is also worth listening to. His project This, That and the Other (ITM, 1987) with Toshinori Kondo (trumpet), Sean Bergin (saxophone), Michael Moore (clarinet), Steve Noble (drums), Jean-Jacques Avenel (bass) and Tiziana Simona (vocals) not only features an outstanding lineup, but also offers everything that is characteristic of Honsinger’s musical philosophy. Then, all of his recordings with Cecil Taylor are great, perhaps standing out would be the aforementioned trio album The Hearth (FMP, 1989) with Evan Parker as well as Always A Pleasure (FMP, 1996) with Longineu Parsons (trumpet), Charles Gayle and Harri Sjöström (saxophones), Sirone (bass) and Rashid Bakr (drums). The above-mentioned recording released after Taylor’s death with the quintet is an absolute gem (Lifting the Bandstand, Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2021). A personal favorite of mine from his late oeuvre is HDRS, his quartet with Axel Dörner (trumpet), Olaf Rupp (guitar) and Olli Steidle (drums) (Evil Fingers; gligg records, 2014).

His death is a great loss for the free jazz world, all the more because it was unexpected due to the recent positive developments. May you rest in peace, great harlequin of improvised music.

Watch Tristan Honsinger in one of his last performances in a duo with Schuichi Chino at bar bookstore Knulp in Trieste, Italy in April 2023:


John Gilmore said...

To flush out the Canadian chapter of his story:

Tristan Honsinger studied for only one year each at the New England and Peabody conservatories. When he left the Peabody, he lost his education deferment and was drafted into the US army. He fled to Quebec with his cello and a hundred dollars in his pocket, becoming one of thousands of US draft dodgers and war resisters to find refuge in Canada during the Vietnam War. Tristan went initially to Quebec City, then moved to Montreal, where he first lived with the artist Gabriel Filion and his family, learning French and falling in love with the daughter Hélène Filion, a dancer. Tristan worked in the family's toy store for a year, then took odd jobs. It was in Montreal that Tristan began improvising, performing in the streets, sometimes with Hélène dancing, sometimes with other musicians including US trumpeter Clint Jackson and Dutch clarinetist Pieter van Ginkel. Tristan and others recorded the music soundtrack for the feature film "Le mort d'un bûcheron," by Gilles Carles (1973). He is also seen (and heard speaking French) in the documentary video, "Ce soir on improvise" (1974). Tristan played for over a year with the pioneering free jazz band Quatuor de Jazz Libre du Québec, and also performed with avant-garde singer Erica Pomerance. But it was the Quebec artist and free improviser Raymond Gervais whom Tristan credited with turning him on to what was happening musically in Europe, playing European LPs for Tristan from his personal collection. Drawn by what he heard, Tristan moved to Amsterdam in 1974, helped by Pieter van Ginkel. Tristan returned to Montreal in 1981 to give workshops and a performance at the Museum of Fine Arts, and later made other return visits.

[This outline of Tristan's Montreal days comes from various sources, including the book "Jazz Libre et la révolution québécoise: Musique-action, 1967-1975" by Eric Fillion (M Éditeur, 2019), and interviews I recorded with Tristan in Montreal in 1981 and 2015 (the latter jointly with Fillion), which form part of my forthcoming oral history book about the birth of free improvised music in Quebec. The interviews are held at Concordia University Library Special Collections, in Fonds John Gilmore.]

Nick Ostrum said...

A fitting obituary and very sad news. I had heard of Tristan Honsinger, but had never really listened to him until I saw him live a few times in Berlin in 2019 with his Hook, Line and Sinker project (see the album Fishy Business on Relative Pitch) and Hopscotch at the A'larme Fesitval (here's a video of it: Perplexing, playful and just wild stuff. A truly unique musical mind.

Claude said...

My partner and I (and the other half of our then-quartet) played a show in the hinterlands of the frozen Northern Country of New York state with Tristan on February 23 of 2019. Tristan was playing with the excellent Nicolas Caloia from Montreal. He and my partner hit it off and I think they played as a duo, but we definitely played a short set with the four of us. I was playing modular synth that night and Tristan was both kind and honest about "not really getting electronic music". Nonetheless, he and Nicolas put on an amazing show and Tristan definitely made an impression on us. Thanks for this article as there hasn't been too much published on his passing yet, definitely found out about the sad news here. I have the soundboard recording of that show and I definitely will be revisiting it with my partner when a quiet moment presents itself.

Anonymous said...

An excellent musician who never foget it should be fun! He will be much missed.

Hugh Salt said...

A musician of great humour , he was always stimulating and refreshing , may happy memories from the Bim House and very late nights in the Studio at Stichting Maart Radio on my show Just Jazz