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Atavistic’s Unheard Music Series: European Free Jazz

By Brian L. Knight

European Free Jazz came about during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was rooted in both the 1960s innovations of American musicians such Albert Ayler, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor but it also made references to European classical music. While many American performers such as Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago came to Europe to play free jazz, there were also a wealth of Danes, Germans, French and Dutch who made great innovations to the genre.

When listening to European action/energy jazz, there are many terms that come to mind: derisive, rambunctious, extreme, animated, witty, exuberant, harebrained, quirky and unpredictable. Thanks to the folks at Atavistic Records in Chicago, much of the rare European recordings that have occurred in the last thirty years are now available for our ears to hear once again. Listen to these three recordings and discover for yourself what emotions come to the surface.


Han Bennink Nerve Beats (Atavistic Records, 1973, 2000)

Dutch percussionist Han Bennink is no stranger to both American and European jazz circles. During the 1960s, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, and Hank Mobley recruited him for their European tours and his playing is also heard on Eric Dolphy's Last Date (1964). This album was one of the great reedman’s final recordings as he passed away less than a month after this performance. Last Date also highlighted the playing of the Ukrainian pianist Misha Mengelberg who Bennink collaborated with throughout the 1970s. One of Bennink’s longest partners was saxophonist Peter Brotzman. The two recorded along with pianist Fred Van Hove throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and the two recorded numerous duo albums in the spirit of Rashied Ali and John Coltrane. Although Bennink’s playing shifted towards Europe more and more during the 1970s, he also recorded on albums by American avant-gardists such as Don Cherry, Paul Bley, Roswell Rudd, and Cecil Taylor.

For Nerve Beats, Bennink deviated from his tradition of playing with noted American and European jazz musicians, and decided to go "solo". For three tunes, "Bumble Rumble", "Spooky Drums" and "Nerve Beats", Bennink employs the drums, tables, trombone, clarinet, rhythm-machine, and in his own words, "anything/everything". Like today’s Alloy Orchestra or the entire Art Ensemble of Chicago, Bennink saw every surface as a potential beat and he felt every instrument known to man was an instrument worth playing. Nerve Beats was recorded live in Bremen, Germany in 1973 and has Bennink shuffling through various moods. The funny thing is that every song is appropriately titled – "Bumble Rumble" sounds like the Jets and the Sharks meeting for a sunset brawl while "Spooky Drums" is similar to the Apocalypse Now sessions of Mickey Hart and company. Through these moods, Bennink’s inspiration and technical insight is more than apparent.

Leo Cuyper’s Heavy Days are Here Again (Atavistic Records, 1981, 2000)

In 1981, Han Bennink recorded with the Dutch pianist Leo Cuypers for the Cuyper’s album Heavy Days are Here Again. Saxophonist/clarinetist Willem Breuker and bassist Arjen Gorter also joined Bennink and Cuypers for this date. The Dutch born Cuypers is a European version of McCoy Tyner meets Cecil Taylor. He plays the piano percussively and deliberately but also he has some of the quickest hands in the business. Breuker and Cuypers were no strangers to each other as they played in The Willem Breuker Kollektief during the mid to late 1970s. The two also played also played as the Breuker - Cuypers Duo on countless occasions. In addition, Breuker and Cuypers also participated at Baden-Baden Free Jazz Meeting on December 12-14, 1969. This event joined great Europeans such as Cuypers, Breuker, Terje Rypdal, Albert Mangelsdorff, and Heinz Sauer with members of Art Ensemble of Chicago -Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, and Roscoe Mitchell.

Heavy Days are Here Again signified the first reunion between Breuker and Cuypers since their 1970s heyday. Songs like "Happy Days" and "Alstadt de Olifantstand" both start as funky pieces, with Cuypers displaying his virtuosity, and then the tunes break out into Breuker free romps. "Misha", a tribute piece to Misha Mengelberg, is a slow piece that has Breuker providing soft and subtle squonks and Cuypers playing a haunting melody line. At times Cuypers shows his skills at maintaining rhythm at the next his shows his ability to launch the music in whole new directions. For a bunch of noted free jazzers, this album is very accessible and it possesses a lot of swing. At one time, I am sure the names of the musicians on this album connoted the far out reaches of jazz. Heavy Days reins in their talents a little bit in order to create a tangible yet pioneering recording.

Nachtluft – Belle-View I-IV (Atavistic Records, 2000)

If Cuyper’s Heavy Days was an accessible album, than Nachtluft provides music for those looking for a challenge. Consisting of the experimental percussionist Gunter Muller, sound artist Andres Bosshard and percussionist Jacques Widmer, Nachtluft recorded together throughout the 1980s. Throughout their recordings, Nachtluft was constantly pushing the sonic limitations. This album Belle-View I-IV was recorded in Zurich, Switzerland in 1986 and it consists of resonance, reverberations, noise and distortions that would make the great composer John Cage very proud. For this album, Muller played the schlagzeug, elektrozeug, zither, and schalgzeug maschine. Try your analytical skills – these translate into percussion, electronic percussion, zither and drum machine. You match them up.

These three have always been involved with sonic exploration and experimentation. In the 1980s, Muller attached a microphone system up to his drum set which allowed for the electronic manipulation of drums and percussion while Bosshard was one of the pioneers of translating radio into a visual art. In 1987, the trio recorded at the dam of the Lago di Sambuco, Ticino which was used to deflect their sounds. Beyond Nachtluft, Bosshard has been involved with many sonic groups such as Deform and Planet Oeuf while Widmer and Bosshard performed together for the albums Space Food Union and Westblock. During the spring of 1991, Widmer and Bosshard participated in Telefonia, which was the linking of two avant-garde bands – one in Sulzer-Areal Winterthur, Switzerland and the other in the Hall of Science, New York. The event was not only an experiment in satellite technology but also the morphing of music forms that originated on opposite sides of the Atlantic. One of the craziest sonic events occurred on Sept 4, 1999. Bosshard worked with Pauline Oliveros for a program called Echoes From the Moon. Working with a group of ham radio operators, Oliveros and Bosshard sent her music via radio signals to the moon and than played her accordion with the echo as it came bouncing back.

For more info on these fantastic Atavistic releases, head on over to www.atavistic.com