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Grooving on a tone row

StockhausenThe name of Karlheinz Stockhausen was a cool one to drop in the more advanced zones of rock and jazz at the end of the ’60s. Thanks to the British cellist and arranger Paul Buckmaster, the effect of the German composer’s thinking was even felt by Miles Davis. When Buckmaster introduced the trumpeter to works including Gruppen, for three orchestras, the electronic piece Telemusik, and Hymnen and Mixtur, which blended both approaches, the consequences could be heard in On the Corner, the 1972 album in which Miles (and his producer, Teo Macero) applied new ideas about structuring recorded music to the trumpeter’s rapidly evolving love of funk.

Stockhausen died in 2007, aged 79. Some of his pieces will be featured at the South Bank in London later this year as part of the festival titled The Rest is Noise, after Alex Ross’s best-selling history of classical music in the 20th century. And now comes a version of his Tierkreis, written in 1974-75, arranged for jazz sextet by the UK-based pianist Bruno Heinen and released on the Babel label.

TierkreisTierkreis is a 12-tone composition based on the signs of the zodiac: 12 separate movements, each based on its own tone row. It was originally written for a dozen musical boxes, as part of a theatre piece, which is probably why its individual melodies are uncharacteristically approachable (and have been sneered at as being childish). Stockhausen stipulated that it could be played by any instrument or combination of instruments, and there are recorded versions for solo piccolo, trumpet, double bass, violin, guitar and trombone, and many sizes and types of ensemble, from a duo of tenor voice and synthesiser to the Strasbourg percussion group and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It is, perhaps, the most popular single work to have issued from the famously knotty world of dodecaphony.

The rare attempts to bring jazz and serialism together have not always ended happily, although the 1964 album New Directions by the British composer David Mack (and featuring the flugelhornist Shake Keane) has its admirers. Bruno Heinen’s version of Tierkreis meets the challenge of serialism while remaining extremely approachable, not least because the voicings for trumpet (Fulvio Sigurta), tenor saxophone (Tom Challenger) and bass clarinet (James Allsopp), and the grooves supplied by Andrea di Biase’s bass and Jon Scott’s drums, are not a million miles away from the result of Herbie Hancock’s decision to pare away some of the shock elements of the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-’60s, of which he was a member, and produce the beguiling and much-imitated melodicism of the Maiden Voyage album.

If that makes it sound a bit bland and derivative, it’s neither of those things. Heinen, whose English mother, a violinist, and German father, a cellist, both worked with Stockhausen, and who now teaches at the Guildhall School of Music, sounds completely at ease with the challenge. He also has a handful of interesting soloists: Sigurta delivers his agile, unpredictable phrases with a bright, cornet-like tone, Scott shows himself capable of producing an unusually absorbing drum solo, and Allsopp could be the latest in a short line of bass clarinettists — Eric Dolphy, John Surman, Rudi Mahall — to give the instrument an authentic and original jazz voice.

It’s more than half a century since Gunther Schuller presided over the Third Stream movement, a short-lived attempt to bring jazz and classical music together in mutually fruitful collaboration, often derided despite successes with John Lewis’s “Three Little Feelings”, George Russell’s “All About Rosie” and Ornette Coleman’s Jazz Abstractions LP. But where frontal assault failed, stealth and individual initiative eventually succeeded: works like Russell’s subsequent Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature (written in 1968), Coleman’s symphonic Skies of America (1972), Wadada Leo Smith’s majestic Ten Freedom Summers (released last year) and this new version of Tierkreis show that the instinct was fundamentally sound.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mick Steels #

    Interesting piece, as usual, maybe these blogs could be collated into a book some day. One point about the bass clarinettists, not too many original voices on this instrument as you say. I know your not a fan of Benny Maupin but he supplied an important rhythmic element to ‘Bitches Brew’ and was a key member of Herbie Hancock’s fine early 70s band.
    One vastly underrated musician is Buddy deFranco, who was one of the few musicians to hold his own with the mighty Tatum, but also cut an album playing bass clarinet with Art Blakey in the mid 60s on Vee Jay which is worth looking out for. I always felt deFranco got a raw deal from critics, he is still alive whether he is active musically I am not sure.

    March 17, 2013
  2. I need to to thank you for this good read!! I certainly loved every bit of it.
    I’ve got you saved as a favorite to look at new things you post…

    April 15, 2013

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