Could Georg Graewe be a chameleonic figure in the world of jazz improvisation? Listening to a selection of recordings from over the last decade or two, it soon becomes clear that this German pianist is frequently found in completely different settings, with his music consequently traversing the distance from intensely thoughtful sparseness through to throttling, high-density hyperactivity. He's always identifiably himself, but deeply affected by the colleagues that he chooses for any given session. Graewe has played piano duets with Marilyn Crispell (tuned and detuned), has a regular group with cellist Ernst Reijseger and percussionist Gerry Hemingway, a quintet (this was the form of his first band in 1974) or can be heard in duo with the British saxophonist John Butcher, his most violently abrasive outlet.
Perhaps it will be possible to discern the "real Graewe when he appears at New York's The Stone in the Fall, 2007, playing a set of completely solo piano works. His New York appearances have been extremely rare and, if Graewe recalls correctly, he was last here in November, 2000. This solo set will be followed by a selection of songs and variations with singer Almut Kuehne. "There are several cycles of piano music that I've been developing over the last twenty years, says Graewe, in the midst of a European tour. "'Studies For Piano Solo,' from 1987, was the first one, then 'Fountain Rhythms,' from 1990, was next. Later came 'Fantasiestücke,' of which I'll perform numbers XVIII-XX in New York. I'll also play a few pieces from a new cycle called 'FederSkizzen II,' plus excerpts from 'Improvisation Sur Barraqué,' which refer to Jean Barraqué's piano sonata.
The second, song-based set of the evening is likely to be very different in character. "Almut is one of the singers in my new fourteen-piece orchestra, Sonic Fiction, Graewe continues. "The other one is Phil Minton. We'll mainly take bits and pieces from that repertoire and rearrange them for a voice-and-piano situation. And there'll be a number of new things that we'll pick up along the way. The naming of Graewe's Sonic Fiction ensemble refers back to the title of his 1989 hatART album with Reijseger and Hemingway. "Almut has been studying with me in Berlin since 2003. She came into my class at the Hanns Eisler Music Academy when she was twenty. After awhile we tried a few of my songs and she turned out to be the voice I'd been looking for all the time. She's such an extraordinary and original talent and she's growing day by day.
As ever, the issue of what is and isn't improvisation can be a thorny one. Is Graewe improvising around his compositions or transcribing his improvisations or is he doing something else entirely? "As a composer I improvise and as an improviser I compose. I think improvisation is essential for composition. Schoenberg has referred to composition as 'slowed-down improvisation' and even Stockhausen [at the early stages of total serialism] has described his ideal as 'improvising within a field of proportions'.
Ostensibly emerging from an improvising jazz background, Graewe also hovers in close proximity to the European new music zone, but matters aren't quite as simple as they might seem. "I think the base goes at least as far back as Frescobaldi, but of course 20th-century music will be the main reference here and jazz is definitely part of that. But then Johannes Brahms has had a strong influence on me, as well as early Eric Clapton and I've always had a lot of respect for Brian Wilson. When asked whether his pieces are completely composed, Graewe appears impatient. "Sorry, this does not make sense to me: what is completely composed? Or what would be incompletely composed? Like I was trying to point out before, improvisation is a discipline of composition. Practically, I'm completely improvising, when I'm on stage. Those pieces are defined by certain materials, structures and shapes, which I'm playing an interpretation of. My interpretations will vary to different degrees every night. Also, I might add new ideas or change orders. But then I'm the composer, so I can do as I please!
The emergence of the Sonic Fiction ensemble represents Graewe's largest palette since the days of his Grubenklang Orchestra in the 1990s. "I'm enjoying the advantage of having a large ensemble that I can perform my compositions with in any way I want to. I'm trying to get to a new stage in music, one that is beyond jazz as well as beyond new music. An orchestra like this, with virtuoso soloists who haven't been cut off from the 20th century's major developments in improvisation, is the ideal flagship for my endeavors.