Tenor saxophonist Heinz Sauer, who turns 74 this month, was a mainstay of the extraordinary European free jazz experiment of the 1960s. He played with late-sixties incarnations of the Globe Unity Orchestra, alongside a truly mind-boggling array of heavyweights (Derek Bailey
, Han Bennink
, Willem Breuker
, Evan Parker
, Alexander von Schlippenbach
); he would enjoy an even longer-standing collaboration with trombonist and fellow Globe Unity alum Albert Mangelsdorff
, who died in 2005.
Though Sauer's artistic productivity has never flagged, he has recently seized the imagination of the German jazz scene with a pair of duet recordings (Certain Beauty
is the second) with pianist Michael Wollny. Wollny in turn is one-third of the critically acclaimed and typographically iconoclastic trio called [em]. The Sauer-Wollny duo's media appeal is eminently clear: the musicians are separated in age by 46 years. The "bridging-the-generations" ploy sounds like a gimmick (an impression encouraged by the inclusion of compositions by Björk and Billy Strayhorn), and the chasm in the players' ages probably helps get them into the newspapers. But it's the palpable empathy of their playing that has put this record at or near the top of so many European critics' best of 2006 lists.
Sauer's tone is tremulous, breathy, grainy, paradoxically fragile and firm at the same time; it's not hard to believe he is part of the Peter Brötzmann
cohort, but he nevertheless embraces the classic melodies ("Nothing Compares 2 U," "Chelsea Bridge") with an wholeheartedness that some of his contemporaries would be incapable of. Wollny is essentially lyrical, but his approach to the piano is persistently irreverent, strumming the strings, muffling notes, and making the hammers stutter the way Gonzalo Rubalcaba
does. Together the players exhibit an idiosyncratic abrasiveness that enhances rather than detracts from the considerable charm of the performances.
Fine readings of two Monk tunes mark out the musical territory covered by Sauer and Wollny. "Evidence" is all elbows and jarring but playful fits and starts; its restive energy is matched in an aggressive version of Gil Evans' "Blues for Pablo" and Mangelsdorff's title cut, perhaps the record's finest moment. "Ruby My Dear," the second Monk composition, is by contrast keening and bittersweet, as are the lovely Sauer original "Believe Beleft Below" and "Lush Life."
The settingeconomical piano/saxophone versions of mostly familiar materialis entirely conventional, but Sauer and Wollny manage to make a record that sounds, subtly, unlike anything else.