Achim Kaufmann, Frank Gratkowski, Wilbert de Joode: Oblengths

There was a time, in certain jazz circles at least, when free improvisation was likened to playing tennis without a net—a cheat, as if inventing form and content in the moment was easy. Partly to dispel such notions Misha Mengelberg started calling improvising “instant composing,” and he’d prove its value, by combing through tapes of his improvisations, in search of promising material to develop. Musicians all over Europe took to free play, and in time even mainstream jazz musicians would give it a go: Keith Jarrett’s trio, Regina Carter and Kenny Barron, Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor—and Lee Konitz, who’d played free with Lennie Tristano in the ’40s. Collective improvisation is a discipline that calls for good ears, quick reaction time, and abundant musical resources. It is often done best by groups that specialize in the practice. Which brings us to Achim Kaufmann, Frank Gratkowski and Wilbert de Joode.
    This sterling trio first came together in 2002, at one of the great laboratories of improvised music, the weekly Tuesday series at Amsterdam’s legendary Zaal 100. But the band’s roots go back to the mid-1980s, when pianist Kaufmann and saxophonist/clarinetist/bass clarinetist Gratkowski both lived in Köln and played together often, sometimes in a trio with drummer Uwe Ecker. But then they drifted apart. By the late 1990s, Achim was living in Amsterdam, across the harbor from bassist Wilbert de Joode, and in 1999 those two first played together in a one-shot Michael Vatcher group at Zaal 100. By then Wilbert and Frank had clicked in a couple of Dutch pianist Michiel Braam’s bands. And then Kaufmann and Gratkowski reconnected, and had the idea that a trio with De Joode might make for a fun evening.
    Some Tuesdays at Zaal 100, the interplay is a miracle: “This could be a band!” And usually that’s the end of it. But this time, it really was a band: they all knew they had more to say together. The trio recorded kwast (Konnex) on their first European tour in 2003 and then unearth (Nuscope) live in Köln the next year—nice records both, and like all the trio’s music, all improvised.
    Gigs were not so very numerous in the early years. Achim Kaufmann picks up the story: “In 2006, things took off a little more. We played a number of concerts in Germany, Serbia, Holland, and France, and some of those recordings became the CD palaë, on Leo Records. I feel that around that time—and palaë documents this quite well—the trio really developed a special identity.” He’s right: that album is a stunner from its opening moments, where it may take you a minute to sort out who’s playing what. Plasticity of timbre is one of this trio’s hallmarks.
    More European tours followed. “In 2007, we did a two-week tour in Canada and the U.S.,” Achim says, “and another ten-concert tour in the U.S. in November 2009. Those North American tours really made us a band I think—like a night in Edmonton where nothing seemed to work except for individual solos. Some live recordings from early 2010 became geäder [on the Gligg label], and I hear our road experiences in there.” Then came SKEIN (Leo) recorded in 2013, where the trio were embedded in a sextet with cellist Okkyung Lee, drummer Tony Buck, and timbre-minded composer Richard Barrett on live electronics.
    And now comes oblengths where each member of the trio dips into his own distinct repertoire of squeaky, percussive and abrasive sounds, among many other available sounds, including their instruments’ customary ones. There are moments when each player can make his axe sound channeled through an amplifier with a cracked speaker cone.
    They have great command of ensemble texture, the sum of the band’s individual parts. Frank Gratkowski has mastered the full range of once-unusual techniques that a contemporary composer like Richard Barrett might call for in a score; Gratkowski exploits the myriad tonal and timbral effects improvisers have embraced since before King Oliver picked up the wah-wah mute. Paradoxically enough, that broad range of ‘voices’ Frank can inhabit in short order defines his personal style, instead of obliterating it. It’s not about style quotation, but having all the right tools at hand.
    Kaufmann loves Herbie Nichols’s tricky jazz tunes, and can sound delicate as Schubert, but he’ll slam the keyboard too. Much as he can make the big metal-and-wood box ring, he’s never a bully who elbows the other players out of his way. He’s also unusually adept inside the piano, where using various objects placed on the frame or the strings, he gets those squeaky, abrasive and cracked-amplifier sounds; he knows where the overtone-nodes are along the strings, to bring out prepared-piano bonks by hand as he strikes the corresponding key.
    Wilbert de Joode’s violent pizzicato can make other bassists sound like they’re barely tapping the strings; with a bow he can give the impression he’s sawing the bass in half, or he can descend into an almost subliminal subterranean hum. He can quickly switch between pizz and arco in mid-phrase too. But De Joode can also stay the course: harp on one catchy figure for a good long time, perhaps until its rhythm insinuates itself into the ensemble, at which time he’ll move on, as on “Trash Kites.” Or maybe he’ll never quite let that catchy figure go, as on “Of Time in Pieces.”
    When things change fast, the players will shift direction by rounding a curve rather than making a 90-degree turn at a stop sign: no “channel switching” jump cuts. Instead they may sneak up on you, literally. The players are so sensitive to dynamics, they’ll play spatial games with your perceptions—make one instrument sound like it’s in the foreground, and the others far in the distance.
    Taking dynamics and texture as seriously as they do, they will get very quiet and spare, embracing wide open spaces—the whole Morton Feldman/AMM/Wadada Leo Smith silence-is-golden esthetic. (That idea comes back with a vengeance on the final track). “Unaccounted For and Inward,” the shortest piece here at six minutes, hints at their expressive range; there’s three-way counterpoint, something approaching improvising over chord changes, and an animated final episode, with a sublime little coda. You may fairly wonder who plays that last faint note.
    “No Doubt the Beginning,” which seems to begin in cyclonic medias res, demonstrates the rhythmic complexity the most alert players bring to raucous free play. As the phrases keep permutating, the trio achieves some strange kind of swing feel. And then they come to an exaggerated fermata, taking a deep, deep, deep breath before carrying on.

--Kevin Whitehead
author of Why Jazz? A Concise Guide (Oxford)/Warum Jazz?: 111 gute Gründe (Reclam)

Achim Kaufmann, Frank Gratkowski, Wilbert de Joode: Oblengths : Leo Records LR 748