A double bass neck with broken strings, starkly etched by Peter Brotzmann against a white background, neatly summed up the meaning of A Night of Joy and Music - Memorial Peter Kowald, which took place January 11 in Frankfurt. Kowald, 58, one of the prime movers of free improvised music in Europe in the 60's, died suddenly of heart failure in September 2001 right after a concert in New York organized by his longtime friend William Parker.
And the American bassist was among the many colleagues who took part in the memorial concert organized by his Wuppertal friends Brotzmann and Uli Armbruster in a Frankfurt theatre.
Kowald over the years developed a unique network of connections all over the world, allowing him to carry out two complementary artistic concepts: the Global Village, with improvising musicians from different continents and traditions, and the Ort (place, in German) Ensemble, with local musicians and artists from his hometown, Wuppertal. This legacy was apparent all over the long evening, with musicians from three continents sharing the honour of having worked at some point with Peter, whose influence was first felt in what was then West Germany, branching out soon to East Germany, and after that to other European countries less central to the improvised scene, like Greece, and soon after to USA and Japan. He had a deep seated respect for other traditions and cultures, and took care of learning many of the languages of the countries he was visiting, including Japan, where he was able to get into conversations with taxi drivers, buddhist monks and musicians.
The character of the evening was firmly established by the first set, a breathtaking trio played by violinist Gunda Gottschalk, Xu Fengxia on the Chinese Cheng, and the French percussionist Ninh Le Quan. Intense, delicate and furious at the same time, the trio - they played together, as a quartet, with Peter - created 20 minutes of beautiful, arcane sounds, the lyrical lines of the violin complemented by the plucking of the long strings of the Cheng and by the ever changing colors of the highly original set-up of Le Quan, a bass drum used as a resonance box for cymbals, woodbranches, pine fruits. The quartet with Alex von Schlippenbach on piano, Italian saxophonist Gianni Gebbia, Barry Guy and Sven-Ake Johansson on drums drew from the tradition of Schlippenbach long-standing quartet, the Italian contributing some melodic strains and Johansson his trademark, deadpan humor which included a plywood, non-resonating, cymbal. The two bones, piano and drums quartet with Paul Rutherford, Connie Bauer, Keith Tippett and Han Bennink was a ad hoc grouping in the best tradition of free improvisation, and predictably took a while to gel, but the last minutes were a delight. The American contingent took the stage by storm with Charles Gayle and Assif Tsahar on saxophones, William Parker on bass, and Hamid Drake on the trap set: who does not hear the deep, powerful swing of this music must have poor ears indeed. Based on jazz, but truly free at heart, the foursome delivered a no prisoners taken, all-out burst of creative energy.
The first part of the evening was closed by the ten piece group led by Peter Brotzmann, who devised some score or structure for the set, basically a set of simple ensemble movements framing the solos. The group featured two pianists and two drummers, but since the organization could not afford all the instruments they took turns sharing what was available, reducing the group to something like an extended octet. The latest works by Brotzmann for big groups is however more exciting than the results of this particular group, which relied on the strength of the soloists more than on group interchange.