In Point of Departure 51 (June 2015), I reviewed three CDs by the Swiss-born, Paris-resident saxophonist Bertrand Denzler, all recorded in a brief period in mid-2014. Denzler has recently issued another batch of works – the formats range from CD to LP and download – recorded in November and December of 2015. They reflect both the direct continuation of some of the earlier projects, as well as a strikingly different direction, though one that certainly resonates with Denzler’s musical roots.
One of the CDs reviewed previously was Heretofore by a duo with the drummer Antonin Gerbal, a reduction of their trio Zoor with guitarist Jean-Sébastien Mariage. Bertrand and Gerbal have now recorded a piece called The Ring (confront ccs 65) with the German trumpeter Axel Dörner. If Heretofore focused on an incredible sonic intimacy achieved by the drummer and saxophonist, The Ring has somehow extended the sense of intimacy by including another musician. The trio Contest of Pleasures, with Dörner, saxophonist John Butcher and clarinetist Xavier Charles, has long represented a highpoint for me in this kind of sonic improvisation – sustained tones, multiphonics and beat patterns combining in a way that sounds equally composed and the product of chance – and it’s equalled by this very different grouping. There’s less layered sound here, more focus on individual events, but Gerbal has a distinct ability to create snare drum rolls of such evenness that they feel closely akin to the granular and sustained single tones and multiphonics of the tenor and trumpet, at times creating a strange evenness of parts as one of the three voices enters and another recedes. The 40-minute piece ends with high drama, Gerbal beating time with a single insistent stick as Dorner adds blasts of air and Denzler multiphonic wails that alternately increase and diminish in amplitude. It’s music of stark emotional power, simultaneous minimalist approaches and highly developed sonic and gestural vocabularies achieving a unique effect.
Denzler has also revisited the piece (and group) Horns, previously released as Horns 1.2 on CD (confront ccs 38). It’s now Horns 2.1, performed by the same quartet of Denzler on tenor, alto saxophonist Pierre-Antoine Badaroux, trombonist Fidel Fourneyron and trumpeter Louis Laurain. Released by the new download label Remote Resonator, it’s available at https://remoteresonator.bandcamp.com/album/horns-21. As in the previous performance, it’s profoundly meditative work, a series of overlapping long tones in which the band seems to be measuring the space in which they play, mapping physical and psychic echoes, creating beat patterns as tones move toward unison. In this version it’s grown richer and fuller, as the musicians work further into the methodology and meaning. Here it’s music that never seems to change (like the music of the quintet Hubbub of which Denzler is a member, or his orchestral “pseudo drone” Morph [confront ccs37]), but one which changes constantly in its pitches and harmonies. It’s anti-expressive in the extreme, in that the horns play without inflection or personal identity. It’s literally a dialogue among close tones, the space in which they interact and the overtone patterns of the brass and reeds. Listened to closely, the piece’s architecture and pitches become the listener’s own space, tuned and retuned in the piece’s 40-minute duration.
While these works represent a direct continuation of Denzler’s recent work, there’s a decided difference with the project Neuköllner Modelle, named for the Berlin neighborhood of Neukölln where the band recorded in the club Sowieso. The liner writer, Bastian Zimmermann, goes to some lengths to treat the music as a kind of rediscovery of jazz and an old principle of swing, practiced without compositions and traditional form. It is and it isn’t, but it’s an appealing argument that Zimmermann somehow connects to the different ages and approaches of the band members, from bassist Joel Grip in his thirties to Denzler in his fifties to drummer Sven-Åke Johansson in his early seventies. The scale of the declaration extends to the packaging of the music: Sektion 1-2 appears on an LP (Umlaut UMLP03), while Sektion 3-7 is a two-CD set (Umlaut UM CD 26 27). The band heard on the LP is a trio of Denzler, Grip and Johansson. The CDs are by a quartet that adds pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach (now in his late seventies).
Whatever one thinks of Zimmerman’s thesis (more later), the music is incredibly good – free jazz played with a keen sense of the interrelationship of parts and a commitment to rhythmic drive as well as continuity and coherence. Clearly Denzler has numerous approaches to the idea and aims of improvisation, but put him in front of a driving free rhythm section and he’s a master of thematic improvisation, focusing on short phrases, kernels of rhythm and melody, repeated (in this modality) for momentum and varied for every possible rhythmic alignment and every shred of meaning before transforming into another motif.
Grip focuses on pulse, a few notes placed consistently and consistently well placed: it’s a fundamentalist concept of bass playing in jazz that goes back to the music’s basics, whether it’s Pops Foster or Walter Page. Grip is also interested in swing in it’s original context, arranging music of the ‘30s for the Umlaut Big Band in which he has played bass. Johansson drums continuously and often densely, whether ornamenting melody or supporting the soloist and offering alternative rhythmic paths. Part of the swing to which Zimmermann alludes arises in the tension and bounce between the approaches of Grip and Johannson.
This is improvised music – sub-section free jazz – of the very first rank, but I’m not sure this music is quite the breakthrough that it’s being claimed as (When did Han Bennink stop swinging?). Further, I don’t think it has to be. It’s part of something larger and very close to the heart of it: it’s the kind of free jazz that has become the vital mainstream of jazz, a jazz that is wholly improvised within the particular terms of a conversation, a music with absolutely no set rhythm which is nonetheless in the rhythmic tradition of jazz, even using the ideal fundamental instrumental configuration of bass and drum kit that has been in place since around 1930 and that seems ideally to match with the tenor saxophone if there is to be but a single “solo” instrument – a circumstance defined around sixty years ago by Sonny Rollins at the Village Gate with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones or in the Riverside Studio recording Freedom Suite with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach; redefined (as drive rather than swing) by Coltrane with Elvin Jones and Reggie Workman at the Village Vanguard in 1961; and further redefined (as centrifuge) by Albert Ayler with Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray in 1964.
That historical anchoring of free jazz – as a counter language to the fixed styles of jazz – has led to the multigenerational character of free jazz, witness the constant exchange and interaction with younger musicians practiced regularly by Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann and Joe McPhee, just to mention three tenor saxophonists who have practiced the art for over 50 years, and there are plenty of younger musicians finding their own voices in the form, like John Dikeman and Albert Cirera.
Zimmermann feels closer to the music’s distinguishing quality when he writes of the Neukölln milieu: the potency of free jazz is the way it lends itself to other cultures, in particular multi-cultural environments:
“I just moved to Neukölln a few months ago. It’s a district that’s being talked about. It seems like a platform for proclaiming all sorts of opinions, whether about migration politics, education policies, the art and bar business, hipster culture, or simply just for the art of life. Neukölln is constantly looked to for models, also in music: whether it’s the many small bars that still have a club in the cellar where international DJs present their music; whether it’s the semi- annual community welcome ceremony for newcomers, where a string quartet plays the national anthems of the respective countries of origin – already suspiciously like an installation; whether it’s street musicians who suddenly get a record contract. Or whether it’s the old Greek with the cowboy hat in the M41 bus who plays such a sad song on his bouzouki that half the travelers are visibly touched. Precisely here (and elsewhere) is where this trio fits in. Neukölln defines a context, not a place.”
Zimmerman quotes Sven-Ake Johansson as describing this music as “Constructive free jazz” or “Non-expressive free jazz.” That may be initially contentious, but this music steers clear of the determinedly expressionist side (think Brötzmann or Mats Gustaffson at full blast). Instead, this music is inclusivist, international and impressionistic, though sharing with Rollins the quotation, the digression, the ironic aside, the auditory equivalent of the look askance. It’s open to its mixed milieu, whether it’s Rollins’ New York in the late ‘50s or Ornette Coleman’s Los Angeles in 1958 or contemporary Berlin. It’s a sense of a particular kind of place that not only gives rise to free jazz but which seems to require it, a uniquely mobile idiom in which personality mixes with impressions of a space and which is built out of senses of both conflict and the sense of dialogue, even if it’s only the sense of a band exchanging views in the language of a music coming into being. Neukölln doesn’t have a monopoly on this. Denzler can play the same music in Paris. Ingrid Laubrock (with German roots) can play something very similar in Brooklyn or wherever she happens to be; Rodrigo Amado can do the same with roots in Lisbon (I have the sense that the tenor saxophone provides a particular balance, though doubles offer opportunities for contrast).
Denzler and company provide almost two and a half hours of great music here, a free exchange of thoughts and impulses. Denzler dwells on “All the Things You Are” in Sektion 4 and plays pure bop blues on the brief Sektion 5. Overall, it’s as exciting when the band gets to Sektion 7 as it was in Sektion 1, the two longest episodes at over half an hour each. In that final movement Denzler practices a kind of free jazz balladry that’s invested with romance as well as blues, a muted “standard” without a prior model. Along the way, von Schlippenbach momentarily adds a bit of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts,” much as his own trio references the themes of Eric Dolphy on the recent Warsaw Concert (Intakt).
These may be bad days for everything else, but they’re great days for free jazz.