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European Echoes: Jazz Experimentalism in Germany

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    Posted: 08 Aug 2020 at 4:08am

Until the mid 1960s, European jazz was American jazz, because almost all of the European musicians who dedicated themselves to jazz wanted to copy the great role models. The most prestigious European musicians were the ones who could imitate best. There were hardly any original contributions, and they were simply not wanted as they were regarded as inferior. It was only with the impact of free jazz in the USA that this hegemonic position of American jazz began to falter. In the liberation from the traditional principles of jazz, the harmonic and metric guidelines, the rhythmic order of the beat - the swing - younger European musicians began to free themselves from the influence of these guiding principles. In free music, which interestingly enough already dispensed with the term jazz, they could develop in a completely new and free way. The musicians could get rid of traditional forms and rules, which not only threw the old system of limitations overboard, including improvisation in the old manner, but at the same time questioned the identity as jazz music and - as some musicians and critics claimed - also denied jazz tradition in general.

In his book European Echoes: Jazz Experimentalism in Germany 1950 - 1975, Harald Kisiedu sets out to refute this radical break with tradition. In a continuation of Ekkehard Jost’s Europas Jazz 1960 - 80, Wolfgang Burde’s A Discussion of European Free Jazz and Mike Heffley’s Northern Sun, Southern Moon - Europe’s Reinvention of Jazz, Kisiedu wants to prove that German experimental jazz in particular has always referred back to US-American concepts and practices and has not separated itself from its spiritual founding fathers. In doing so, he wants to show that especially Germany has created a scene that understood itself in the tradition of black cultural production. Kisiedu focuses on the life and work of four outstanding German free jazz musicians - Peter Brötzmann, Manfred Schoof, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky. In addition, the political environment of the time and the conditions of production are examined.

Starting off with Peter Brötzmann, possibly the most iconic figure in Europe’s free jazz, makes sense since his recordings For Adolphe Sax and Machine Gun, whose first editions were released on this own BRÖ label, are often regarded as the most uncompromising dissociations from the classic jazz role models. Kisiedu elucidates that Brötzmann was mainly influenced by Fluxus artist Nam June Paik, who he adored for his iconoclastic ideas, and that he was also interested in John Cage’s music at that time. In combination with Brötzmann’s desire to break musical rules and his poor identification with West Germany’s post war society, free jazz provided an alternative to the “social, political, and cultural practices of the status quo“. In this context Kisiedu distinguishes between dissociation and emancipation by pointing out that Brötzmann has always referred to his jazz roots and the influence free jazz musicians have had on his music (e.g. Don Cherry and Albert Ayler). At the beginning of his career Brötzmann only wanted to get away from pure imitation.

In the second chapter the book displays the musical worlds of Manfred Schoof and Alexander von Schlippenbach and the scene around the Cologne Conservatory, where they studied with classical composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Especially highlighting Schoof’s contribution to European free jazz seemed promising, because he’s underrepresented in jazz literature considering the fact that he’s responsible for European Echoes and Early Quintet (both on FMP), two cornerstones of German free jazz. Here the book also depicts the importance of 1950s jazz big bands like the one of Kurt Edelhagen and illuminates how Schlippenbach and Schoof were influenced by Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. In combination with their deep knowledge of new classical music they were able create a new style which had its roots in American jazz and in European music.

In the last chapter Kisiedu examines the career of Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky as a classical example of a jazz musician in the former GDR. He lists the difficulties one had in playing the music of the class enemy, which on the other hand was the music of the oppressed African-Americans. Here he also explains the connection between the East and West German scenes using the example of Jost Geber's FMP and he goes into detail about the legendary festivals in Peitz.

Apart from the great diligence that Kisiedu undoubtedly delivers, there are also weaknesses in his approach. Often the text digresses and does not concentrate on the work of the key musicians of the chapters, which would have been extensive enough for an investigation. In the part on Luten Petrowsky, for example, the Kühn brothers are also dealt with, as are Ulrich Gumpert, Conny Bauer, Günter “Baby“ Sommer, the FMP label and the Jazz Workshops in Peitz. Except for some nice anecdotes, a lot of encyclopedic knowledge is processed here, which makes the reading a bit tedious. The same goes for the Schoof/Schlippenbach chapter, in which the book also tries to include a section about feminism in the free jazz scene (Iréne Schweizer) as well as Gerd Dudek’s and Gunter Hampel’s contribution to Schoof’s and Schlippenbach’s music. Here, less would have been more.

These deficiencies might be neglectable, but European Echoes: Jazz Experimentalism in Germany 1950 - 1975 is not totally persuading in general. Kisiedu can prove his initial thesis, but that’s not the problem. Actually, he sells old wine in new bottles. The thesis that the Europeans had reinvented their “jazz“ without resorting to US-American models has never really been upheld, especially in Germany. Brötzmann, Petrowsky and Schlippenbach in particular have repeatedly pointed out how much they have been influenced by American jazz, even if it was just by constantly listening to Willis Conover’s program on Voice of America. When Brötzmann was asked in the 1980s what music he listened to (in expectation that he would rather mention music that had nothing to do with jazz), he always said that he actually - if he listened to music at all - prefers his old heroes like Sidney Bechet or Ben Webster. Listening to Schlippenbach you could have always heard the major influence of Thelonious Monk, not for nothing he’s one of the great Monk interpreters of our time. Especially in the last chapter we get to know too little about how free jazz has influenced Petrowsky’s music (for example Ornette Coleman). Instead, in the passages about Günter “Baby“ Sommer we learn how he used “Art Blakey’s big beat, the blue notes on the flatted fifths, on the minor sevenths“ etc. Sommer points out that there was a musical connection to protest and resistance, that conventional music was lacking a revolutionary spirit for him and that jazz represented anti-establishment. That’s why he felt an immediate sympathy for the “blowing to pieces“ faction of the Wuppertal scene with Brötzmann and Peter Kowald. That’s an exquisite and insightful passage. It’s all the more deplorable that there’s no detailed analysis on Petrowsky’s excellent albums Selbdritt and Just for Fun, on which African-American influences shine through. Also, in his interviews with Schlippenbach, Kisiedu brings to light exciting aspects. The pianist explains how the harmonic and innovations of bebop and cool jazz had prefigured free jazz neglecting melody, rhythm and timbre, which is why it would have been interesting how Schlippenbach used this in his own music by giving examples. In the Brötzmann chapter Kisiedu shows that the saxophonist quotes “several measures from (…) Charles Ives’ 1906 composition Central Park in the Dark, in which he (…) superimposes several layers of music, each in an independent meter or rhythm“ as well the ragtime song “Hello, My Baby“ in the chorus of “Machine Gun“. Again, more of such analytic parts would have been great. In what pieces can one clearly or latently feel the influence of classical jazz? Or to what extent does the British scene in particular have a greater distance to the classics?

Harald Kisiedu claims in his introduction that he would continue Ekkehard Jost’s Europas Jazz among others, but he can hardly add something essential to this standard work. It might be nice for readers who don’t read German to get some information on that musical period since Jost’s book hasn’t been translated. Also, for readers who are not that familiar with German post-war history (politically and musically), the book offers a good summary, and - it’s worth mentioning - it contains a very nice collection of hardly published photographs.

All in all, however, we are still waiting for a new benchmark on European free improvised music. So one still has to fall back on Ekkehard Jost’s books Europas Jazz and Free Jazz.

You can order the book here: https://www.wolke-verlag.de/musikbuecher/harald-kisiedu-european-echoes/

from www.freejazzblog.org


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