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Artist: V/A

Album: Im Rückblick - In Retrospekt

Label: FMP

Review date: Mar. 16, 2011


Malfatti-Wittwer - "'Tis a Point" (In Retrospekt)


Things fall apart. Interest in what’s sometimes called “the hated music” has never been anything less than episodic: small pockets of furrow-browed, serious folk have occasionally swelled since the 1960s to medium-sized pockets. But the modest surges of interest inevitably recede, and the hard won successes of well-known individual improvisers can’t account for the shared struggle globally, as venues close or shift priorities, as magazines fold (goodbye, Cadence), and as door gigs continue to be the norm.

When Im Rückblick - In Retrospekt‘s 12 discs arrived on my doorstep, it didn’t immediately strike me as obvious that it was the venerable Free Music Production label’s farewell. It was with great warmth and melancholy that I pored over the hundreds of photos in this lavish booklet, documents of unbowed and committed players who, since 1969, floated through one of the most significant labels to document improvised music. Its thorough history contains a list of every concert presented at the Total Music Meeting festival that birthed FMP, pages of reproduced flyers, and beautiful written reflections (including the backstory of the label’s legal battles and changing stewardship).

While there has always been considerable cross-pollination between different European scenes (and between Europeans and Americans), the Total Music Meeting often had a more internationalist bent than, say, the London or Amsterdam scene. There was Peter Kowald’s Global Village, Butch Morris’ Berlin Skyscraper, and the appearance of improvisers like Jin Hi Kim or Sainkho Namtchylak over the decades. So aside from FMP’s crucial documentation of first-, second- and third-generation European free improvisers (not just titans like Peter Brötzmann and Alexander von Schlippenbach but, thankfully, a raft of lesser known players), it’s also been key in documenting the intersection of various scenes, most famously with Cecil Taylor’s 1988 summit and Sam Rivers’ presence shortly thereafter.

Can a boxed retrospective hope to capture this range? Not really, but it’s a damn fine distillation in one place. The music was recorded between 1975 and 2010, and it does make an effort to represent the label’s long-standing concerns for local and transnational exchanges, solo and ensemble music. Several of the discs have been previously issued on vinyl (although finding them once required a serious, committed record safari), but there are also five brand new issues and some great live sets.

Solo performance constitutes a good portion of the set. There is a fantastic reissue of two Fred Van Hove solo piano dates from the 1980s. He’s puckish and racing on the first one, but always with those unexpected confessional moments amidst playful glissing or dissonant romps. Nobody crabwalks like Van Hove, but then amid the density he’ll bust out a weird, Kurt Weill-ish bit like “Prosper wals” or even some unexpected vocalisms — more evidence of the vast range and the stylistic synthesis documented by this scene. The later concert is like one bright efflorescence of notes, a sustained buzz of activity that ends with a furious Keith Tippett-like stream. There’s also a very revealing 1976 Brötzmann solo, Wolke in Hosen. It contains the full range of his imagination, from the barbaric yawps and vocalisms that put Mats Gustafsson in thrall, to the querulous clarinet lines that defy those who would pigeon-hole him as mere firebreather. The incendiary alto shout “twee(D)dldum” and a bass sax romp on “Humpty Dumpty” are highlights. One of Steve Lacy’s best solo concerts of the 1970s, Stabs, is here in its entirety (along with a pair of tracks from the hot quintet date Follies). The master is lyrical as always, and just beginning to move beyond his birdcall phase. And solo Peter Kowald is always a treat, nowhere more so than here on Was Da Ist live. The concert opens with a gripping sequence of arco statements, fragile, lyrical and supremely guttural at once. Throughout the set’s duration, Kowald sucks you in with the sheer humanity of his playing: from huge groaning chords, hypnotic drones, furious eruptions and chants.

The two duos on In Retrospekt are miles apart in terms of quality, to my ears. Indeed, one of the box’s greatest surprises is an outrageous 1976 recording from guitarist Stefan Wittwer and trombonist Radu Malfatti. Before Wittwer lost himself in bombast and Malfatti in silence, they were deeply involved in a musical topography of alien detail. Imaginative, empathetic, and at times technically astounding, this is one I keep coming back to. The 2010 meeting of guitarist Olaf Rupp and cellist Tristan Honsinger, both of whom I very much like, is not so successful (and the disc’s dingy acoustic doesn’t do the music many favors). While it’s got good dynamic range, and some pleasant moments of cello melancholy, Rupp here sounds merely a slasher and the limitations of that approach hold the music back to me.

The small group recordings, however, are uniformly fine. One of the hottest from the mid-1970s was a trio featuring Rudiger Carl on winds, pianist Irene Schweizer and drummer Louis Moholo. The music is flinty, with real fire and deep communication. Filled with barrelhouse romps and walls of sound, this trio knows acutely the value of repetition, shooting bullets atop a wave of rhythm or lacquering that one long note across it. There are also two valuable slices from widely celebrated ensembles. One includes a pair of sets by the Schlippenbach Quartet (Schlippenbach on piano, saxophonist Evan Parker, percussionist Paul Lovens and Kowald on bass), both glorious assaults from the Quartier Latin previously heard in part on The Hidden Peak and Three Nails Left. There’s also a typically marvelous gig from Die Like a Dog (Brötzmann on reeds, Toshinori Kondo on trumpet, bassist William Parker, and percussionist Hamid Drake), a 1994 set that opens in a mid-tempo tabla jam and gathers momentum until it arrives at this band’s singular throb and intensity.

In terms of localism and scene support, the clearest evidence on this box is the vivid wind quintet Manfred Schulze Blaeser (trumpeter Paul Schwingenschlogl, trombonist Johannes Bauer, and saxophonists Manfred Hering, Heiner Reinhardt and Gert Anklam). With wildness in check for the most part, these fellows play with the kind of sober art sensibility one hears from ROVA and the Arte Quartett (especially on the opening “Bounce Nr. 2 (Choral)”). It’s actually a delicious surprise, filled with smeared color, contrapuntal energies and drunken gallops like “Choral-Konzert.” Slightly better known but equally superb is the 1999 date from Manuela: Rudiger Carl (clarinet, accordion, claviola), Hans Reichel (guitar and daxophone), violinist Carlos Zingaro, and komungo specialist Jin Hi Kim. With Zingaro’s overtones and little chirrups from Carl’s squeezebox, this music makes for a lovely musical topiary, with the key being the interplay between the worried quaver of komungo and the daxophone’s surprising vocalisms.

And for those seeking a riotous blast of large ensemble polyphony, one of the real jewels is the Globe Unity Orchestra disc that leads the box off. It’s a gorgeous, exuberant mid-’70s shout from an all-star band truly in touch with the ethos. It ranges from an insanely good Enrico Rava track (showing how lyrical, even sentimental, players in this orbit could be) to a brilliant Anthony Braxton synthesis and a punk as hell “Jahrmarkt,” one of the GUO’s most beloved tracks finally presented properly.

Considered as a whole, the box set is testimony to the musical vitality, the social import, and, most important, the gravity of the musical relationships that make up these sounds, these meetings and these documents. FMP will be missed, but the music goes on.

By Jason Bivins

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