In Achim Kaufmanns art, curiosity and candour have always seemed to sit side-by-side. In a series of excellent and often underappreciated small group recordings over the past six years, the German-born pianist has created a rare kind of intimacy, staking out a claim on the edges of contemporary jazz and improvised music.
From his home in the Netherlands, Kaufmann has split his energy in three.
Most famously, perhaps, hes led a quartet which includes fellow Amsterdammer Michael Moore, the American saxophonist and clarinetist. Their two CDs, gueuledeloup (Red Toucan, 2002) and double exposure (Leo, 2000) are models of some of the finest forward-thinking chamber jazz coming out of Europe today.
While in a pair of cooperative trios, Kaufmann sets aside his tricky, multi-layered compositions for a pure, entirely open brand of improvised music. The first, with Moore and Canadian drummer Dylan van der Schyff, toured briefly last spring; a recording is expected sometime in 2005. The second, with German reeds player Frank Gratkowski and Dutch bassist Wilbert de Joode, released its first disc, kwast (Konnex), earlier this year.
Yet in spite of the emotional breadth of these groups, this present project - the fourth strand, if you wish - lives somewhere altogether different. Here, on his formal coming out as solo pianist, Kaufmann leaves himself wonderfully exposed, pushing the intimacy of his work with greater force than ever before.
To call a solo piano performance a "project" may seem something odd. But Achim Kaufmann is one of the most meticulous musicians youll ever meet. When Leo Feigin, four years ago, asked him to produce a solo recording before his quartet debut, he passed.
"For a long time, I was mostly interested in playing with people, in writing music for groups and trying to come up with situations for group improvisation," Kaufmann explains. "But over the past couple of years, I started to do more free improvising in all kinds of different situations. After doing that for a while, your own instrument somehow becomes an important point of reference, because there is no premeditated structure or composition, nothing on paper."
So suddenly Kaufmann felt compelled to rediscover the piano, something hed never done before. Growing up in a musical family - piano teacher mom; opera conductor, accompanist dad - he had always taken the instrument for granted.
But early on in this process, Steve Lacy opened his eyes to the possibilities of solo performance. They met for a lesson in Paris in 2001.
"One thing he said stuck," Kaufmann recalls. "He told me how important it is to do research on your instrument. That wasnt new to me, but it was just the way he said it. It inspired me to explore the piano more: to explore different registers - lets say the bass register - and stuff inside the strings."
Kaufmann had done the odd solo performance before; in hindsight, however, they felt more like "byproducts of something else," a rehashing of his own repertoire.
But now, in his late-30s, he started a more systematic, in-depth investigation of his instrument, performing periodically but mostly just preparing on his own. He played at home as often as he could, recording everything.
"Maybe its another way of composing, I dont know," he says, beginning to laugh. "I just wanted to know more about myself, to find out what I was doing. Its pretty instinctive stuff I was trying to get out of the piano. Instead of conceiving music on a piece of paper, I was working with a MiniDisc recorder and a microphone."
He also started to visualize dance and drumming while improvising.
"That really helped in terms of energy and rhythmic momentum," he says.
So when he finally went into the studio, he brought two pieces - "marche b2," which appeared as "marchebrisée" on double exposure, and Herbie Nichols "2300 Skiddoo" - but, really, he just planned to sit down and play.
"I had the confidence that some of the material I had worked on would come out one way or another; if not, something better or something that would interest me would come out."
Certainly some of Kaufmanns "favourite zones," as he calls them, are here - specific ideas, textures, techniques.
Start, perhaps, with his affection for polyphony, whether its the neat unravelling of "2300 Skiddoo" - think Earl Hines or Jelly Roll Morton - or the left-hand workouts on "windows composing trees" and "a dreg of red," where he tries to superimpose a spectacular stream of ideas over a constant tempo.
Or consider the recurring clutter and storms in the bass register, often as an improv is just getting underway.
Still, Kaufmanns exploration of the instrument itself might be best understood in the preparations. His various experiments inside the piano add another, more elusive layer -
and a great degree of unpredictability, too.
While Kaufmann applies a range of tools to the pianos strings - plastic rulers, his own fingers - his favourites are made of rubber: a small hand sander, to stop the strings at different angles to produce different overtones; a piano tuners wedge, to create high, bird-like sounds; and a big ball attached to a vibraphone mallet, to get particular kinds of vibrato.
"Dips and proclivities" is probably the best place to start. Kaufmann admits it has "a certain sense of drama that I enjoy, between its pretty chords and melodies and sounds in the interior." Indeed, its fragmented spine, its method of juxtaposing material, is something he keeps coming back to.
"Preparations sometimes act like a third hand disrupting what I do," he explains, referring specifically to this piece. "Its something where I stumble, where chords get choked. It definitely has something to do with investigating the quality and the meaning of the chords."
On one level, these 18 pieces feel like 18 different kinds of investigations, a minute and vast spectrum of sound scavenging.
"You could say that all of the pieces are different types of knives, different shapes," Kaufmann says, alluding to the sessions title. "You could also say that they are different 'slices', segments, or something like that."
The visual arts, an enormous inspiration to Kaufmann over the years, might also be a useful point of reference.
"If you play the pieces together, its like a collage," he observes. "The pieces themselves are not very long but then there are a lot of cross-references between them which perhaps makes it more like one bigger piece."
Of course any extra-musical analysis must also reckon with the titles. As on Kaufmanns last recording, kwast, these are the creations of his wife, the Canadian poet Gabriele Guenther. After listening to each improvisation, she sought out lines in her poetry that somehow suited the music. For every piece, she gave Kaufmann a handful of suggestions, and he picked the names.
In the end, Guenthers contribution is a perfect way to navigate the disc. It also makes listening with your minds eye particularly revealing. Put on, say, "of water plants and figurines" or "her hair a dark river and in its depths, ghosts and goblins." Nothing else needs to be said: just play with the words - in your ears, on your lips - and listen. Forget about all of the preparations and notes and just imagine the music. Imagine it all in an arc, as one large canvas, and then, only then, will you be getting to the heart of this extraordinary project.