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Christian Lillinger’s Grund at Cologne Philharmonic

Phillip Woolever By

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Christian Lillinger's Grund
Cologne Philharmonic
Cologne, Germany
March 18, 2017

Many German cities can boast of a vibrant jazz scene. Cologne is one of the most dynamic of them all, with a widespread foundation of educational institutions, popular clubs and broadcasting. Most important, there's a dedicated, cooperative network of well-schooled, non-conforming musicians.

One impressive collaborative for just such experienced-based experiments is the septet who form Grund ("ground"), under the compositional direction of drummer Christian Lillinger.

For Grund, Lillinger gathered an unusual formation. The ensemble features complimenting couples comprised of two horns (Pierre Borel on sax / clarinet and Tobias Delius on tenor sax), two harmony instruments (Achim Kaufmann on piano and Christopher Dell on vibes) and a pair of upright basses manned by Jonas Westergaard and Robert Landfermann.

There are not many jazz shows at the Philharmonic, but when there are, they are usually special. Grund reinforced that trend tonight, though their type of musical visions do not usually play classical venues.

Lillinger has already had a busy 2017, in various formations. He stepped on stage for over the thirtieth time this year, including a handful of master classes. The focused, precision intensity he maintained throughout the set was impressive, while his technique and twirls were entertaining to observe.

There was a big crowd of around a thousand people, much of the attendance number likely due to multi-show subscriptions. Either that or the city holds even more unconventional jazz lovers than suspected.

Challenging an audience with abstract pieces that are often deconstructive or non-harmonic while ranging from minimalism to chaos can crash on each side of the equation, but Grund were up to the task. Most of the fashionable Cologne audience showed a sophisticated ear.

Grund have been an ongoing project for a few years now. With their excellent third release Grund (Pirouet 2015), they seemed to hit their stride. This concert featured the entire album in sequence, and stretched the original fifty minutes to approximately ninety with added improvisation and individual solos.

The recording is enjoyable enough, hearing it live added multiple new dimensions. Songs were not introduced or even generally separated. The audience hesitated a few times in recognizing appropriate times to clap, if there really is or isn't such a thing in cases like this.

By the opening transition from "Tatul" into "Kinet," Borel and Delius had created enough abstract woodwind intensity to signal a definite detour from La La Land. Not everyone dug the trip. Some couples departed with unhappy faces, just fifteen minutes into the set.

After intermission there were noticeably fewer occupied seats than during the first half of the concert, but most of the audience remained and seemed to appreciate the show.

On the psycho-lounge tune "Taxon," Lillinger pounded out earthquake rumbles from a huge bass drum that sat behind him like a monolith. "Fur Gerd" employed drums, vibes and piano with percussion as bare and essential as a skeleton.

There was a worthy, price of admission moment for upright bass aficionados when Landfermann and Westergaard went deep and wide during a duet that ended in sonic dialogue with Lillinger as the full crew hopped aboard. Lillinger's brushes covered a lot of the proverbial "grund" as he scratched out some surprising tonal ooze with a cymbal cone.

Lillinger's only solo stick work came on the too brief "Flux," as the crowd almost froze in concentration and paid the rare compliment of complete attention. Kaufmann and fan-favorite Dell were bookends in both stage position and harmony, on songs like the climactic "Ga."

There was significant applause at the finish; one well-dressed gentleman, third row center, gave a personal standing ovation.

Preceding the encore, each musician was presented with a brightly blooming purple rose that they propped around their instruments during the exit song "Nonee."

It was a very nice conclusion to an even nicer evening.

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