The musical spectrum of Georg Graewe
Bruce Carnevale/EPulse magazine, 3/28 & 29/97
For jazz pianist Georg Graewe, performing and improvising is visiting the past, setting an accent against or with others, or combining them. Like fellow musicians -- Matthew Shipp practices Baroque pieces, Peter Brotzmann enjoys playing Ben Webster tunes at home -- Graewe hardly plays what he listens or practices to.
In his Cologne bureau, Cream CDs sit next to country, next to Schoenberg. Piano notes to the latter share shelf space with those of Jelly Roll Morton. As label owner of 'random acoustics,' Graewe finds all of these musics bound by intensity and hence equally valid.
"There was an intensity in Cream. Live, you hear an electric improvising rock band." While his own music sounds little like "Sunshine of Your Love," neither does it sound like the pre-gig music he listens to with his highly acclaimed trio (with Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger and American percussionist Gerry Hemingway) -- Prince, Al Green, or maybe George Jones. Indeed, this music recharges and challenges, almost as a thesis to which Graewe and crew place an anti-thesis: "a method of contradiction, to set something against [the modern composer Pierre Boulez or George Jones."
It's nothing extraordinary for Graewe, whose own approach to music history could turn a few heads. 'Complementary' is his word. "No one takes into account that Schoenberg was almost the same age as Jelly Roll Morton. I believe in a complementary movement, and by thinking them together, interesting things can emerge, what is missing in one you find in the other." More? "Both Boulez and Coltrane worked on 'time.' Boulez on making it more flexible, Coltrane, roughly parallel, on 'temporal sheets of sound.'"
"Certain things are simply in the air," he says; not a mystical, but rather an historical spirit (think Hegel) spurs musicians to work through problems in different but complementary ways. In jazz one finds developments of a much larger "musical spectrum," which has "aspects in Schoenberg or Stravinsky." Or Merle Haggard, but all make up a larger order.
"One wouldn't interest me without the other, it's a question of tensions," he continues. "I wouldn't admire Morton so if I didn't know Schoenberg. And to live in a world only with Boulez would be a sad existence."
Graewe's work spreads itself in many formations, solo, duos, the trio above; various quartets; larger formations with voice specialist Phil Minton and American harpist and sometimes Partchian Anne le Baron. More recently he has worked with Swedish reedsman Mats Gustafsson, with the American percussionist Hamid Drake, as well as the German Frank Gratkowski. In short, the cream of the youngest generation of free improvisers.
Prey to the environment, a man walks outdoors recording storyteller's anecdotes through a tube-like device, thereby preserving an oral tradition. This is the label's image. Random? It's about "coping with the momentary situation," Graewe told me, "as a factor in music making." Similarly, his favorite piano, the Boesendorfer, must be coaxed: "with the Boesendorfer the music always makes a curve when it comes out." An image of an eavesdropping fly adorns the cardboard CD sleeves.
Graewe is a sensitive partner and never dominates. While some find him complex, intellectually challenging -- see the Penguin Guide to Jazz -- his music doesn't penetrate you, but opens before you, offers many places to enter, but rarely stays in place.
One of the best introductions to Graewe's work is through his trio with Ernst Reijseger and Gerry Hemingway, on 'Flex 27' (r.a.). The intimate setting and clean recording clearly introduces each performer: the pieces are stunning miniatures, most running about three to five minutes, perhaps a great intro for those wary of free improv. Reijseger sounds occasionally classic, early twentieth century in his melancholic ruminations, but never dwells, Graewe light-handedly punctuates Reijseger's bowed passages, and Hemingway adds patterning texture. There is a fineness, a clarity of line here.
His larger ensemble, the GrubenKlangOrchester ('Sounds of the Mines Orchestra') actually used old coal miners songs as a foundation, fragmenting them into short sections. Graewe was born in Germany's coal mining area. A beautifully delicate recording, 'Flavors, Fragments' (on the German label, itm) documents this band. Graewe sets forms in place -- for example alternating duos and trios, rhythms, tone pictures -- and allows the player to fill them. He edits duration, filters out a tension. His other ensembles work similarly, on 'Chamber Works 1990-92' (r.a.) embellished with Phil Minton's voice and Anne le Baron's harp. Here you hear Satie-like lightness, Dada-esque nonchalance, a music that can float right by you, or into you.
Graewe has also released two records by Gerry Hemingway's fine quintet; one, 'Slamadam,' was one of the best recordings of '95. Hemingway's latest, 'Perfect World,' follows its predecessor but doesn't quite reach 'Slamadam''s density. Both portray Hemingway's fine sense of rhythm and ability to coordinate spaces of controlled rhythm and melody with those of free improvisation.
Other r.a. recordings include radical English free jazz, in the best sense -- it fiddles around, but never for its own sake -- via John Butcher on 'Concert Moves,' electronic percussion experiments from Hemingways solo, as well as cross-over improvised/composed meetings through the atmospheric sounds of Radu Malfatti's trombone-whooshes with Burkhardt Stangl's electronic guitar-drones, music about slowness ('Loose Music' and 'Polwechsel').
For fans of free improv, a welcome addition. For the initiate a good place to start. Check out: