It is something of a paradox in our modern societies that the cherished value of freedom of expression is viewed askance when applied to music. Just ask any Free Man about the right of speech and what would be more sacred to him than that? Yet, when musicians prevail themselves of a similar right to play , their aspirations are often met with suspicion. True, there are segments of the general listening audience who are receptive to musical free play, yet there are even more who are in quandary about it. Overall, responses can run the gamut from mere skepticism to total incomprehension, if not downright contempt. In fact, there are a good deal of nay sayers out there who discount it sui generis, as if all attempts at such music making are unsuccessful by definition.
But as we know all too well, those people belong to a greater constituency in need of reassurance. Thus, it should not surprise anyone that the faithful reading of a through-composed work provides them with a boon, and likewise when there is a certain degree of spontaneous playing occurring over a number of set materials (tunes, harmonies, grooves).
Notwithstanding such jaundiced views, Free Music is no freak of nature, nor a blip on the map. Indeed, with more than 40 years of history, it has grown and matured over time, expanding its horizons like no other musical practice, past or present. More importantly, the viability of this music is prefaced on that very right to play, which is no different than the right to speak: each one has the power of expressing a truth that simply cannot be silenced.
In language, words enable us to uncover truths, but in music sounds yield their own, and moreso when they are rooted in honesty and integrity. And it is these two qualities that shine through in this recording. Performing before an attentive audience, this trio of seasoned improvisers delivers eight richly detailed musical statements, captured here with all of the clarity of a studio setting.
Call them spur-of-the-moment pieces if you will, or instant compositions, these essays in spontaneous music are outgrowths of a collective playing experience. Since its inception almost three years ago, this unit has criss-crossed Europe on more than one occasion, one of its tours yielding enough material for a first recording on the Berlin-based Konnex label, a disc entitled Kwast (for reader information, this title is a tricky Dutch word that could either mean paint brush or odd duck).
In this follow up release, pianist Achim Kaufmann, reedist Frank Gratkowski and bassist Wilbert de Joode have succeeded in meeting one of the prime challenges of improvised music, i.e. of achieving a very different sounding set of music than in its previous effort. In Unearth, these musicians focus moreso on discursive strategies, whereas its predecessor emphasized timbral explorations. Just listen to Gratkowskis lithe alto at the beginning of his solos on the sixth and eighth tracks, and theres no doubting his jazz proclivities, but there is that gorgeously warm b-flat clarinet heard in the second track, played with a deftness comparable to any classical music virtuoso. And for a late comer to the proverbial licorice stick, Gratkowski certainly has done his woodshedding: indeed, his gnarly bass clarinet has some of Dolphys truculence, but eschews all of his licks; just as remarkable, if not more, he wisely uses his lumbering contrabass model to plumb straight down into the depths of the string bass, thus freeing it from its usual comping role.
In its instrumentation, this unit may look like a paired-down rhythm section backing a soloing wind instrumentalist, but these players are much more cunning than that: the shifts occurring throughout ebb and flow so naturally, and not just from track to track, but within each one of them. Such is the case in the first two extended pieces of this side, not to forget the closing track either, with Gratkowskis changing of horns being of pivotal importance here.
Not to be overlooked in the overall equation is pianist Kaufmann: though he is the groups instigator, he is not the one who calls all the shots as say, a more conventional band leader would. With just as much savvy as his partners when it comes to exploring his instrument, he is as strong as de Joode in bringing about that very elusive yet essential quality of loose togetherness that characterizes the best of all jazz and improvised music.
As rich as words are in their meanings, so is music, and on in their most recent endeavor, these musicians have conjured a most rewarding consort of sounds. With such fine music unearthed, time now to dig in to it. Dig it?
Marc Chenard, Montréal, Quebec Canada December 1, 2004
kaufmann - gratkowski - de joode unearth (nuscope 1016)
liner notes by Marc Chenard