Alexander von Schlippenbach, Aki Takase and Rudi Mahall: Betting on Tradition


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European improvisation began to set itself apart when it built its own tradition, drawing from folk forms and concert music rather than providing provincial answers to questions posed by Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington. Of course, all these figures factored into the music of players like trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, drummer Gil Cuppini and reed player John Surman, but it was their geography and local traditions that made their approaches different. German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach has been at the forefront of the jazz vanguard in his home country and in Western Europe since the 1960s. Beginning as a hard bop player, Schlippenbach's free playing was early on compared to Cecil Taylor and his orchestral works with the Globe Unity Orchestra, a proposal out of the left field of Darmstadt.

But Monk's music has long been a major part of Schlippenbach's work, whether resulting in pure renditions or obtuse reference. His piano playing is relentlessly rhythmic and beholden to an earlier tradition than his peers and immediate forebears—in Schlippenbach's solo work, it's possible to hear vestiges of Fats Waller, for instance. Three new discs examine Schlippenbach's piano from the point of solo, duet and lasting influence: a late 1970s solo date originally issued on FMP; duets with Aki Takase; and Takase's duo project with Globe Unity Orchestra bass clarinetist and Schlippenbach collaborator Rudi Mahall.

Alexander von Schlippenbach
Piano Solo '77

Piano Solo '77 (here with an extra take of "The Onliest—The Lonliest") is the pianist's second complete solo recital, following the 1974 Enja release Payan. Whereas Payan is a collection of compositions and fairly songlike at that, the four pieces here side with extreme density and stretched-out improvisation, the pianist pushing himself and the instrument to the limit. "Lhotse" starts out quoting bits of Monk's "Coming on the Hudson," Schlippenbach clunking his way through short rhythmic motifs and recombining them in angular, disarmingly simple yet prismatic card houses. A darting upper-register call and he's broken into a gallop, a swath of pure forward motion, independently conversant right and left hands each of which provide dry, free-tempo rhythm. Schlippenbach's notes point out that he was "in competition with himself," and it's not unapt—"Lhotse" finds human and instrument at one, yet splintered into dialogue. And that drive can yield funky barrelhouse about seven minutes in, even as the right hand arches outward into pointillist sonic interstices. As he seemingly winds down, an isolated Monkish ballad emerges, only to have piled on it dense McCoy Tyner-ish chords. Piano Solo '77 is an intense ride through the instrument's paces, the record's austere gray cover giving little indication of the secrets contained within.

Aki Takase & Alexander von Schlippenbach
Iron Wedding

Schlippenbach and his partner, Japanese-born pianist and composer Aki Takase, have collaborated since the 1990s, and Iron Wedding is their third recording of duets. Though the scope of their independent work is rather different, they are extraordinarily intertwined—no attribution of phrases is necessary as their approaches are complementary. "Circuit" places delicate glissandi and jumpy blocks in close proximity, a stuttering dance that teases out pirouettes and motivic swing until clusters and runs become ever closer together, masses superimposed until the tune flames out. "Suite in Five Parts" begins with sharp floaters and bubbles creeping in from the periphery and re-approached with a sustained touch. It's a play between coagulated but defined patches of notes and gauzy singularities, combining into a very pure and layered improvisational carpet. Schlippenbach's composition "Twelve Tone Tales" is given the duet treatment. Here its deliberate spirals are wrapped in rhapsodic flesh and augmented by a brief flourish from Takase's celesta. Iron Wedding is most interesting when Schlippenbach and Takase are given space, whether that's the dual agitation of wooden knocks and string rustling in "Gold Inside" or the intertwining boppish songbirds of "Eight." Sheer muscle does impress, but the beauty of this record lies in the oft-atmospheric contours between.

Aki Takase & Rudi Mahall

Takase and German bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall (also a veteran of Schlippenbach groups) have worked together in duo since the early part of the 2000s, releasing Dessert on Leo in 2003. Whereas that session featured compositions from the duo, Evergreen presents a set of 14 well-worn chestnuts. This isn't foreign territory for Mahall; he's approached Monk's songbook with more than gusto, having worked in Schlippenbach's Monk's Casino project (Intakt, 2005) with Die Enttaeuschung. Mahall is an heir apparent to Eric Dolphy, albeit tending toward the extreme end of bass clarinet glossolalia. His tone is sandpaper-rough, and when he caresses the themes it's somewhat like being licked by a cat—clearly done with more affection than delicacy. Coupling Mahall's blustery horn with Takase's comparative classicism makes for an interesting combination, but her command of a huge range of approaches lends the set a cast not unlike what a Dolphy-Jaki Byard duet might sound like. "You and the Night and the Music" is taken at a quick tempo, daubs and clusters eliding and roiling as Mahall coasts from easy swing to sharp snorts and huffs. "How long has this been Going On" finds Takase enveloping the melody in curious energy cells, even at an easy parlor lope. Controlled abandon permeates this set, its continual forward motion built equally on volcanic mass and exciting, beyond-the-beat phrasing. Whether it's as formal a concern as reinvigorating the fakebook with approaches beyond the realm of traditional tonality, or merely enthusiasm and facility fanning these tunes' flames, Evergreen is an extraordinary set of modern improvisation.

Tracks and Personnel

Piano Solo '77

Tracks: Brooks; The Onliest - The Loneliest 1; Lhotse; The Onliest - The Loneliest 2.

Personnel: Alexander von Schlippenbach: piano.

Iron Wedding

Tracks: Early Light; Circuit; Suite in Five Parts; Steinblock; Twelve Tone Tales; RTP; Gold Inside; Eight; Zankapfel; Thrown In; Off Hand; Dwarn's Late Light; Iron Wedding; Passacaglia 1, 2, 3; Yui's Dance; Rain; Far On.

Personnel: Aki Takase: piano and celesta; Alexander von Schlippenbach: piano.


Tracks: Mood Indigo; I'll Remember April; Bel Ami; Tea for Two; Moonglow; You and the Night and the Music; How long has this been Going On; Cleopatra's Dream; I'm Beginning to See the Light; Two Sleepy People; Good Bait; You Took Advantage of Me; It's Only a Paper Moon; Lulu's Back In Town.

Personnel: Aki Takase: piano and celesta; Rudi Mahall: bass clarinet.



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