Alexander von Schlippenbach: Twenty Minutes

John Eyles By

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This spring, Alexander von Schlippenbach celebrated his 70th birthday—on April 7th, 2008, to be precise. By way of celebration, he undertook a short tour of England in the company of Eddie Prevost. On some dates von Schlippenbach and Prevost each played a solo set and then played together; on others, Schlippenbach also played with Prevost's trio, including bassist Joe Williamson and saxophonist Alan Wilkinson. Schlippenbach and Prevost (minus the trio) played at Blackheath in south London, and the following day the pair were recording a session for BBC Radio 3's Jazz On 3 at The Vortex, where von Schlippenbach agreed to be interviewed.

All About Jazz: I want to start off asking you about this tour. You've been playing with Eddie and Joe Williamson and Alan Wilkinson.

Alexander von Schlippenbach: Actually, I know Joe Williamson—we've played a few times before in Berlin a few years ago, then we did something with the Swedish drummer Sven-Ake Johansson—but I've never played with Eddie or with Alan Wilkinson, this is the first time.

AAJ: Eddie, Joe and Alan play together as a trio. How was it for you to come in and join a unit like that, who knew each other fairly well?

AvS: It wasn't so difficult, because I saw them before when they all played together, so I could check them before—the sound and a little bit of the style and so on—and apart from that, we are from the same background. Our improvising was developed by playing more jazz. I think there's a good understanding. This is not always the case—but there were only three concerts, and every night we were feeling more and more together.

AAJ: So over the course of the week you were getting to know each other...

AvS: This is always the case. Find out together...

AAJ: What effect does that have on the music? Did the music change over the week as you got to know each other?

AvS: Yes. I think it got steadily more quality, I would say.

AAJ: You said you had a common history with the jazz vocabulary...

AvS: Eddie and myself, we are older than the others. I know we have so much in common, with musicians we have played with. We have both played with musicians such as Brotzmann. It was an easy understanding I would say.

AAJ: It is a complete contrast with your trio with Evan and Paul Lovens, but ostensibly the music is quite similar....

AvS: If you speak of that trio, it is over thirty years now and we play every year a few times and we make one tour regularly together, so there is a long story behind it. Of course, there is a very—how shall I say—stable bottom to the music we play. We can get very quickly into it and know more or less what we can do because of this long experience. That is why we can go on from another point rather than someone who never played together.

There is also a good thing about a complete unknown. There is a complete difference. It can be very nice because there is no expectation, no knowledge about each other. There can be surprises. But the problem is that it can happen or it cannot happen. There is always a good excuse if it does not happen. It depends on luck. Maybe there are musicians on the same level and if you could just get improvisers together it can be surprisingly good.

AAJ: You say that in a new grouping there is the potential for surprises; do you ever get surprises from Evan and Paul?

AvS: No. I don't get surprises. They are coming slowly, that is the good thing about them. I don't necessarily need surprises that are... [AAJ: Shocks?] yes, that shocks me. I see something coming and if I can catch the basic idea I can maybe do something with it. Then what comes out is the real surprise.

AAJ: So they might do new things, but you can see them coming.

AvS: Yes, yes.

align=center>Alexander von Schlippenbach Alexander von Schlippenbach Trio

AAJ: You tour with them annually, your winter tour. On Winterreise, your album on Psi, it says that on tour you listened to Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Freddie Redd. Does the music you listen to on tour influence your playing?

AvS: I think it influences our playing. We don't imitate the music; we don't play in the style of classical bebop but the spirit of it is something that influences us somehow, adds something to the music.

AAJ: So it shapes your thinking in some intangible way?

AvS: Yes. We are a free jazz group. We are not just improvisers. We learn to play, improvising from jazz.

AAJ: And the group you've played with this week, is that free jazz? Where's the boundary.

AvS: I'd say it is free jazz.

AAJ: Is it always free jazz?

AvS: It's not always free jazz; Eddie, for example, has another sideline, different people. This is traditional jazz territory. It depends on the combination of people who play. I think it was more free jazz than just improvising.

AAJ: So what is it that sometimes makes what you play free jazz and sometimes improvisation? Is it who you are playing with? Or is it something in your head that you can say, "Today, I'm a free jazz player"?

AvS: There are many possibilities. I mean, maybe I have an idea for a project that is not so much about jazz. I mean for instance we did something with Sven[-Ake Johansson] recently, where he does improvised lyrics; he was improvising on texts and fragments of early Paul Klee. We found the book and then a little chamber group tried to do something with that, with not so much drums. It was improvised. Most of the players were jazz players as well. This makes it special. But you see you can have the two sides nowadays in the music, because contemporary music influenced jazz a lot.

(This comment from Schlippenbach led on to a discussion of his two solo albums Twelve Tone Tales Vol. I and Vol. II (Intakt, 2007) on which he achieved a synthesis between twelve tone compositions and free improvisation, a synthesis that sounds both fresh and unforced. The albums also include such pieces as Eric Dolphy's "Out There," Jerome Kern's "All The Things You Are" and Monk's "Trinkle Trinkle," but the highlights are the four Schlippenbach compositions entitled "Twelve Tone Tones I to IV.")

AAJ: I was going to come on to ask about your solo playing. I don't particularly associate you with solo piano, more playing with other people....

AvS: No, you are right. I did two solo records at the beginning of the 70's and then I was mainly busy with the orchestra work and writing lots of music and playing with the trio and all different kinds of situations. Then I was asked by Intakt records to do this double solo. That's the way it happened. I'm doing more solo nowadays.

AAJ: It was a surprise to see on this tour that you were playing solo.

AvS: Yesterday [at Blackheath] I played one of those Twelve Tone Tales compositions, called Twelve Tone Tales 1. On the recording I did two more of those. There was one composition, then I went on improvising on it, variations on the idea. The other pieces were improvised.

AAJ: What are the particular non-jazz influences on your solo playing?

AvS: When I was a student in Cologne, Bernd Alois Zimmermann was very interested in improvising. [Twelve Tone Tales Vol. I features "Allegro Agitato" by Zimmermann.] Anyway, Cologne was quite interesting at this time as a center of contemporary music. I was listening also to Schonberg. In these Twelve Tone... pieces there are some that are quite romantic.

(As well as his trio, Schlippenbach is most closely associated with the Globe Unity Orchestra, the first large scale improvising ensemble, which first came together in 1966 to record his composition "Globe Unity." The members of the orchestra reads like a Who's Who of European improvisers.)

AAJ: We've recently had the fortieth anniversary of the Globe Unity Orchestra. What can we expect in the future? It gets together intermittently, and none of you is getting any younger...

AvS: I hope there is a future. So, as long as we can keep it up... There was a break in the story of the orchestra, but now it is on again. We have some new players, Axel Dorner and Rudi Mahall, who are very important. We just brought out the record for the fortieth anniversary; this was a special production because we chose some points from our history, some pieces from this period. But now we'll play just improvised sets. I think in the future we'll mainly go on in this way. The next CD will definitely be from those performances.

AAJ: Sadly, it was Paul Rutherford's last performance. Do you see Globe Unity Orchestra evolving as members leave or die, as Paul did? For instance, you didn't replace the bassists [Peter Kowald and Buschi Niebergall]...

AvS: Yes, but this was not only about... there were enough bassists. I like to have it without bass because this is a brass orchestra. I found the bass sometimes made it sound more... I wouldn't say unclear, but it gives a color, which is not necessary. Another thing is that any bassist needs to leave his amplifier at home, but lots of them turn up with an amplifier. But anyway, good results—two drummers.

AAJ: Lastly, I want to ask about what I think is your most atypical of your recent recordings, LOK 03 [on Leo]. When that came out it was a surprise. (The album features two pianos—Schlippenbach and his partner Aki Takase—plus DJ Illvibe on turntables, in a series of pieces named after various cities around the world.)

AvS: This is a special production, a family work because the turntable player is my youngest son (pictured). It was based on an idea of Aki's to have sound pictures.

AAJ: Like a travelogue... Was it a one-off?

AvS: We have a few concerts this year and we also did a live improvised music to a film. And this year maybe we are going to make another recording.

AAJ: And the tour that's just gone, that was being recorded?

AvS: Yes. We have recorded yesterday.

Selected Discography

Alexander von Schlippenbach, Twelve Tone Tales Vol: I & II (Intakt, 2007)

Schlippenbach Trio, Wintresse (Psi, 2006)

Alexander von Schlippenbach, Monk's Casino (Intakt, 2005)

Parker, Schlippenbach, Lytton America 2003 (Psi, 2004)

Alexander von Schlippenbach, Broomriding (Psi, 2003)

Globe Unity Orchestra, Globe Unity 40 Years (Intakt, 2007)

Globe Unity Orchestra, Globe Unity 2002 (Intakt, 2003)

Schlippenbach, Takese, DJ Illvibe, Lok 03 (Leo Records, 2005)

Photo Credits

Centered Group Photo: Courtesy of Dagmar Gebers

Bottom Photo of DJ Illvibe: Courtesy of Alexander von Schlippenbach

All other photos: Juan Carlos Hernandez

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