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.
After a breath of fresh air in the bracing Frankfurt night (minus 12 Celsius) an all-female quintet opened the second part; Kowald had a special feeling for vocals, and introduced to the West the extraordinary abilities of the Tuvan singer Sainkho Namtchylak; a second, widely different singer was featured in the group, the Turkish but Zurich resident Saadet Turkoz, while the instrumental trio presented violinist Gottschalk again together with the great ladies of European Improvised music, Joelle Leandre on bass and Irene Schweitzer on piano. The quintet never played together, but very shortly they developed a thick, rich interplay, with the two voices moving in different territories, and the very sensitive Leandre and Schweitzer always listening, deftly complementing the phrasing of the voices and violin. The two following sets were unbalanced by the strong, continuous playing of John Betsch on drums; the perfect, sharp timing that he displays in the group of Steve Lacy group gave way to an high volume barrage that forced the other members of the groups to a sort of grade zero improvisation, short, stabbing figures with strong rhythmic content: both Fred Van Hove and Elvira Plenar on piano, Gayle on saxophone and Hannes Bauer on trombone had to negotiate the situation created by the drummer who only at the end relented giving space to some more detailed, even exchange.
Baby Sommer, the East German drummer who worked with Kowald and Leo Smith in a memorable trio, displayed a huge soundbox with a timbre similar to a marimba, ad some tuned scraps of metal for the following quartet with Namtchylak, Plenar and Parker on bass. The novelty of the colors wore soon off, the dynamics were limited and the figures repetitive, so for my money the set was not successful. On the contrary, the contrabass trio with Leandre, Guy and Parker - all of them played duos with Kowald - was one of the high points of the evening. The three bassists dialogued through a variety of extended techniques, slapping, bowing and generally paying homage to the universe of sounds that Kowald was able to extract from the instrument.
In another ad hoc quartet, Keith Tippett, Gianni Gebbia, Ninh Le Quan and Xu Fengxia proved quickly to be extremely compatible, the deep resonances of the Cheng, often augmented by the voice, instantly evoking rumbling figures by the piano, softly breathed notes by the saxophone and whooshing, rustling, swishing noises from the extraordinary Le Quan.
Sommer was behind the traps for a quartet with Schlippenbach, Turkoz and Greek saxophonist Floros Floridis, but this time fully proved his musical worth and usual wit, first giving the group the support of his crisp drumming, and then coming out with harmonica and jews harp to complement the dramatic, otherworldly vocals of Saadet, the brilliant pianism of Schlippenbach, full of inventive, and Floridis improvised lines.
The two final groupings of the official program brilliantly embodied the spirit of the evening, first Hannes Bauer, Leandre and Van Hove with a subtle and funny interplay, then Brotzmann, Guy, Schweitzer and Drake with a high-energy blow out full of love and rage for the departed friend. Far from being casual or hit and miss, the music of the quartet was based on solid musical meaning and openness to the contribuitions of each other.
After beginning at 8 pm the marathon ended after 2 am, so I hope I will be excused if I missed the open stage which lasted farther into the night, but these two sets were a really fitting close for the long night: so lively was the atmosphere, so involving the music and so warm the reception that it seemed astoningly short, like the abruptly ended life of a great musician.