Alexander von Schlippenbach — Jazz Now! Live At Theater Gütersloh (European Jazz Legends, 2016)
Alexander von Schlippenbach is one of the holes in my jazz education. I’ve heard his music, including the Globe Unity Orchestra, his colossal improvising unit of the ’70s. But I’ve never explored his music very deeply.
I’m also aware that he recorded Monk’s entire catalogue. Like many of the great European improvisers, he traces his musical roots back to the swing and bebop of old.
Still, when I grabbed this quartet concert album on a whim, it was surprising to hear how “straight” most of the playing is, from the romantic strains of Herbie Nichols’ “12 Bars” to the thrilling pace of “Miss Ann,” with nice solos from bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall floors it and drummer Heinrich Köbberling.
It wasn’t an unpleasant surprise — more the kind that makes you smile slowly at first, then more and more broadly until you’re grinning.
You do get generous doses of the outside jazz that I was expecting, mostly in the form of Von Schippenbach’s own compositions. “Tropi” features a kind of broken swing, with a theme that’s traceable but not a simple 4/4; it then dives straight into group improvising, in a fast post-bop vein.
Von Schlippenbach’s “The Bells of St. K” and the opening of Monk’s “Epistrophy” both feature free improvisation, with angular, spiky bass clarinet. (Side note: The band is a traditional quartet with the bass clarinet as the only horn. It’s novel and a little Dolphy-esque.) Von Schlippenbach’s solo on “Epistrophy” is a tasty hybrid of free and straight playing.
The Herbie Nichols tunes are a treat — and it’s kind of sad that I’m still taken by surprise when his name comes up on a song credit. (Nichols was a contemporary of Monk’s whose music isn’t as well cemented in the public consciousness.) “The Gig” comes across as a complex swing — it’s got an easy rhythm but a tangled melody where Mahall gets to show off some dexterity.
One detail I left out: The concert is recent, recorded in March 2015. That’s what inspired me to listen in the first place. There’s a wealth of material from these great improvisers — Destination: Out sells quite a bit, from the old FMP catalogue — but it’s good to also check out what musicians like von Schlippenbach are doing in the here-and-now. The deep knowledge of the Monk-era songbook, mixed with that Euro-improv pioneering spirit, all wrapped up in the comfortable hands of age and experience — it adds up to some wonderful results.