Bobby Bradford/Frode Gjerstad/Kent Carte/John Stevens

Blue Cat
NoBusiness Records NBLP 130

Franz Koglmann

Flaps

Black Monk BMCD-01

Franz Koglmann

Opium

Black Monk BMCD-02

Establishing absolute European improvised music free of American influences was as much of a mug’s game in the late 20th Century as Donald Trump’s xenophobic directives have been during the past four years. Those like Derek Bailey who maintained that stance – while still playing with any non-Europeans who came along – ended up looking foolish. Far more prescient were players like the one here who created a sound mosaic that didn’t bother with geographical origins.

By featuring soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy (1934-2004) and trumpeter Bill Dixon (1925-2010) other Americans and non-Austrians on his mid-1970s discs, Viennese flugelhornist Franz Koglmann created distinct musical interpretations. About 15 years later Stavanger-born alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad confirmed the universality of Free Music with a quartet filled out by two Americans, cornetist Bobby Bradford and bassist Kent Carter, plus British drummer John Stevens (1940-1994).

All of Flaps and half of Opium consist of sessions recorded by Koglmann with Lacy in 1973 and 1975 and trace the brass player’s growing confidence as a composer. Interesting enough his “Bowery 2” is almost straight Bop with echoes of Monk and Gigi Gryce, complete with mid-range work from both horns plus a brief ringing bass solo from Toni Michlmayr, who with drummer Muhammad Malli would also have a long association with Vienna most iconoclastic bandleader Fritz Novotny (1940-2019).

More notable however are some of Koglmann’s other compositions like “Bowery 1” and “Hommage to an Old Raincoat (to Fritz Kotrba)”. Utilizing the electronics of Gerd Geier, the first sets up sophisticated counterbalance among oscillated wave forms, double bass buzzes and muted trumpet as the narrative mutates so that signal processing moves forward and the brass retreats. “Hommage to an Old Raincoat’ has a similar exposition except here the electronics unroll in broken octaves as reed slurs and brass burbles insinuate themselves among the voltage before reverberating to a climax.

Two years later with a different rhythm section of bassist Cesarius Alvim Botelho and drummer Aldo Romano plus trombonist Joseph Traindl, Koglmann’s “Der Vogel, Opium (to Jean Cocteau)” and “Carmilla (to Sheridan Le Fanu)” transplant motifs from one to the other as they’re heard. Harmonizing the three horns alongside a walking bass line, the first exposition splits into soprano saxophone trills, plunger trombone runs and bugle call-like ascension from Koglmann. When Botelho’s string pressure finally strains upwards the resolution leads to a high-pitched group ending. “Carmilla” offers more of the same except with polyphony so that the layered horn parts are clearly audible.

Categorically the tracks composed by Lacy, Malli and Michlmayr relate more established Free Jazz strategies with the addition of early electronic processing. The piano-less format suggest some of Ornette Coleman’s work with robust drumming, high-pitched reed sucking and sul tasto string jumps on “Flops (to Charles Chaplin)” and “Flaps (To Pee Wee Russel)” adding buzzing on/off voltage to a traffic-jam-replicating head that includes tremolo pitches from the horns. Oddly enough another piece that stands out is Michlmayr’s composition “Steirish WC Nr. 2”, a contrapuntal exercise that links an Aylerain march and a Teutonic battle hymn.

Outlier in the set is the 17 minute “For Franz” on Opium, composed by and featuring Dixon, Malli and Koglmann plus Americans, bassist Alan Silva and tenor saxophonist Steve Horenstein. Beginning with spectacularly angular and cello-pitched string pinches from the bassist it evolves into a prototypical Energy Music showcase. At mid-point the piece speeds up as Dixon’s brassy trumpet squeals finally harmonize with Koglmann’s flugelhorn and the saxophonist’s timbres vibrate alongside Silva’s spiccato spurts and later guitar-like twangs. Dissected, downwards moving tones settle into a relaxed climax with cymbal color added.

Without overpowering the band’s own concepts, the spirit of Ornette Coleman’s quartet hangs over the three interlocking improvisations that make up Blue Cat. But it’s an honest pivot. That’s because Bradford was actually part of a Coleman group; Carter played with Lacy around that same time, while Gjerstad and Stevens who worked out their European responses to American Free Jazz, were old enough to be influenced by the initial early 1960s challenges.

Beginning with high-pitched capillary echoes, spindle-thin reed multiphonics and grounded double bass bowing, and the exposition adds emotion and elasticity with driven slaps from the drummer. With grace notes decorations appended via Bradford’s brass slurps and Gjerstad’s double tonguing, a progressive call-and-response develops with the later theme thickened by melded horn tones. In “Blue Cat Part 2” detours into more exotic half-valve brass effects and explore variable pitches are explored. The chromatic move is preserved as Stevens turns a showy trek through most parts of his kit turn to a semi-anthem, with the horns adding the necessary spiritual effects. Before a summation is finally reached in the third section with the boiling rhythm section setting the pace, the saxophonist gets a chance to showcase a dazzling double-timed and irregularly vibrated solo. Joined by brass harmonies the narrative then shifts to a four-part climax.

Earlier instances of the originality and skill that have since marked the careers of most of the featured players, the discs confirm the continued validity of freely expressed improvisation. They also show why nationalism, musical or otherwise, promotes more bluster than brilliance.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Flaps: 1. Flaps (To Pee Wee Russel) 2. Misera Plebs, Take 1 3. Misera Plebs, Take 2 4. Bowery 1 5. Steirish WC Nr. 2 6. Flops (to Charles Chaplin) 7. Bowery 2 8. Hommage to an Old Raincoat (to Fritz Kotrba)

Personnel: Flaps: Franz Koglmann (trumpet, flugelhorn); Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone); Toni Michlmayr (bass); Muhammad Malli (drums) and Gerd Geier (electronics)

Track Listing: Opium: 1. For Franz* 2. Der Vogel, Opium (To Jean Cocteau) + 3. Carmilla (To Sheridan Le Fanu)+ 4. Karl Und Das Löschpapier (To Konrad Bayer) #

Personnel: Opium: Franz Koglmann (flugelhorn, trumpet); Bill Dixon (trumpet)*; Joseph Traindl (trombone) +; Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone) +; Steve Horenstein (tenor saxophone)*; Alan Silva*, Cesarius Alvim Botelho+ or Toni Michlmayr# (bass); Muhammad Malli (cymbals)*; Aldo Romano (drums) + and Gerd Geier (computer) #

Track Listing: Blue: 1. Blue Cat Part 1 2. Blue Cat Part 2 3. Blue Cat Part 3

Personnel: Blue: Bobby Bradford (cornet); Frode Gjerstad (alto saxophone); Kent Carter (bass) and John Stevens (drums)