Several words come to mind when listening to Germany’s Atemgold 09 ensemble; predictable isn’t one of them. The earlier of these two discs, Am Emscherstrand, consists of 15 original compositions written between 1983–92, with the emphasis definitely on “original.” All but one, it appears, were written by members of the band (Raimond Fleiter, who composed “Veterano,” may be a former member). Light–hearted and rhythmic, they sound more than anything else like German drinking songs, or at the least folk songs with strong emphasis on the lower register (tuba, baritone sax). One can almost imagine that this is what King Oliver and his band might have sounded like had they been German instead of American — although the harmonic structure is far more contemporary and sophisticated than anything undertaken by the trail–blazing Jazz ensembles of yesteryear. Atemgold takes chances too; some of these tunes sound as though they were being constructed on the run; that is, while the tape was running. While there are occasional nods toward the straight–and–narrow (“Veterano” sounds at times like a Chick Corea composition), Atemgold remains for the most part in its own singular groove, drawing on a variety of sources to forge its whimsical identity. If it appears that we’re having some trouble describing the music, that’s true. There are some other composers who play in that particular sandbox — Henry Threadgill, Pierre Dorgé, George Gruntz, Anthony Braxton among them — but as we seldom listen to any, it’s hard to draw comparisons. We’d guess, however, that Atemgold is as abnormal and innovative as any of them. Check out “Kalumet,” whose centerpiece is a long tuba solo followed by tap–dancing, or “Böse Brut Marsch,” with percussion that sounds like someone is flailing away at venetian blinds. This is followed by “Nichtsdestowenigertrotz” (don’t even try to pronounce it), which opens like a march, has a klezmer–like middle passage, and throws in a few measures of what sounds like Khatchaturian’s “Sabre Dance” before closing. “Schorsch, der Unheimliche,” with its accordion–tuba nucleus, would be right at home in any neighborhood pub. “The Circle,” which follows, is about as close as the ensemble comes to the mainstream, with solos by alto Schmidt and trumpeter Ruhnke accentuating its modern point of view. Just when one thinks he has heard everything, Ruhnke (we assume) introduces the marimba on “Bup teh Buuh,” which swings as hard as anything on the album. This isn’t for everyone, but the more adventurous listener should love it.
Atemgold doubles its numbers (from ten to twenty) on the more recent Standard but doesn’t abandon its unpredictable temperament. While the songs are often more familiar, Atemgold’s approach to them is unconventional, to say the least. Imagine, if you dare, Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” as an extended drum solo, Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings” as a ballad for unaccompanied alto, or Billie Holiday’s classic vocal, “Strange Fruit,” played by a lone tuba using multiphonics for added color. Yes, Atemgold is at it again, doing what it does best and letting the chips fly where they may. Heinrich Huke’s muted trumpet is by itself on “Besame Mucho” which runs all of 49 seconds; Huke and baritone Thomas Theis are the soloists in a comparatively straight–on version of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” while Theis flies solo on Charles Mingus’ homage to Prez, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.” Latin/African rhythms permeate the session, especially on the opening and closing suites as well as on Dizzy’s “Night in Tunisia,” Dudu Pukwana’s “Baloye,” “Besame Mucho,“ “Cantaloupe Island” Tizol/Ellington’s “Caravan” and Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Marketplace.” Atemgold 09 shows on “Caravan” (and elsewhere) that it can swing hard whenever it chooses to do so. But swinging is merely a by–product; the ensemble’s cardinal purpose is to entertain while remaining audacious and unconstrained. In that respect, high marks for both albums, especially for the more muscular and engaging Standard.
Track listing: Am Emscherstrand — Nimm den Toaster vom Boden; Küsse am Kohlenhafen; Um Eins bei Heinz; Dicke sind auch Menschen; Muselmanns Spuren; He He He; Veterano; Picknick am Kanal; Kalumet; Böse Brut Marsch; Nichtdestowenigertrotz; Schorsch, der Unheimliche; The Circle; Bup teh Buuh; Die letzte Schicht (63:41). Standard — Carnaval / Let the Children Play / Jugando; Dick Tracy; Stella by Starlight; A Night in Tunisia; Take the “A” Train; So What; Strange Fruit; Baloye; Besame Mucho; Cantaloupe Island; Goodbye Porkpie Hat; Marketplace; Caravan; Kidd Jordan’s; Shiny Stockings; Brazil / Celebration Suite / Tristeza / Picknick am Kanal (62:56).