The first time I saw Christian Lillinger, with a trio called Hyperactive Kid at Berlin’s X Jazz festival a few years ago, I found it impossible to take him seriously. It was as if some New Romantic poseur had decided to become a free-jazz drummer for the night. The hair, the gestures: they got in the way of listening. Then I saw him a few more times, and it became impossible not to take him very seriously indeed. Not to think of him, in fact, as one of the most interesting musicians working in Europe today.
He has a septet called Grund: two saxophones (Toby Delius and Wanja Slavin or Pierre Borel), vibes (Christopher Dell), piano (Achim Kaufmann) and two basses (Jonas Westergaard and Robert Landfermann). If you don’t know the names of his sidemen, you should; they’re all exceptional improvisers. What makes the music so distinctive, however, is Lillinger’s composing. Imagine something Andrew Hill might be doing today and you might get an idea: knotty but satisfying themes, surprising structures, brilliant interplay. When I saw them at the Jazz Kollektiv festival in Berlin a year after the Hyperactive Kid gig, it was one of those sets I never wanted to stop. (Another comparison might be with those intense but brilliantly organised quintet and septet sides Cecil Taylor recorded for Impulse in 1961: “Pots”, “Bulbs” and “Mixed”.)
Then, another year later, I saw Lillinger in two more groups: the quartet Amok Amor (with Slavin, the trumpeter Peter Evans and the bassist Petter Eldh) at the Vortex in London and a trio called Punkt.Vrt.Plastik, with Eldh and the pianist Kaja Draksler, at Jazzfest Berlin. In both cases the music was of phenomenally high quality and gave me the chance to appreciate the breathtaking detail of Lillinger’s playing. He is indeed hyperactive, flying around a kit that includes many auxiliary percussive devices with extraordinary deftness and precision, seldom settling on a pattern for more than a few seconds. But once your ears are attuned, they can discern the incredible responsiveness and egoless interaction he brings to the music.
His new album, Open Forms for Society, is something different: a series of 13 densely woven compositions and five improvisations for a group featuring Dell, Draksler, Landfermann and Eldh, plus Lucy Railton on cello, Antonis Anissegos on piano, Elias Stemeseder on piano and synthesiser, and Roland Neffe on tuned percussion. Again, these are all remarkable musicians, perfect for Lillinger’s seamless blend of composition and improvisation, so beautifully integrated — in a form of musical quilting — that you can’t tell where one bleeds into the other.
There are beautiful textures and unexpected juxtapositions of timbre, fragments of melody left hanging in space, sudden bursts of shuffling momentum, abrupt silences, a sense of alertness and inquiry in every ting, squiggle, sigh and shuffle. It’s not easy music, but neither it is at all forbidding: pieces like “Titan” and “Lakat” are disciplined essays in dramatic tension, creating grooves for a world that hasn’t yet quite come into existence.
* Grund’s albums are on the Pirouet, Clean Feed and Plaist labels. Albums by Amok Amor and Punkt.Vrt.Plastik are on the Intakt label. Open Form for Society is on Plaist. The photograph of Christian Lillinger was taken in Berlin in 2017 by Camille Blake; more of her work can be found at http://www.camille-blake.com.