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Karsten Vogel in London

Karsten Vogel Soho 1Karsten Vogel made his London debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1968, alongside John Tchicai in Cadentia Nova Danica, one of the outstanding European bands of the ’60s jazz avant-garde. A little over a year later he was back as a member of Burnin Red Ivanhoe, the Danish jazz-rock band who played the Lyceum, the Speakeasy, the Marquee and other joints, and recorded their second album for John Peel’s Dandelion label. (Last year I wrote here about their reunion album.)

He was back in London this week on a rather unusual assignment, invited to play solo alto saxophone at the private view organised by a Danish galleries in a pop-up space on Greek Street in Soho. In a funky space — bare brick walls and open fireplaces, open ceiling beams, artfully minimalist lighting — and surrounded by the work of eight artists, he performed for 10 minutes or so, using a backing tape of almost subliminal sparseness.

There aren’t many alto saxophonists to whom I’d rather be listening. Kirsten has always tempered the raw passion of the music of his youth with a delicate lyricism that occasionally — and certainly in his short set on Wednesday evening — turns into a very touching fragility. He has a lovely tone — slender, fibrous and very human — and a shallow vibrato: a highly distinctive combination. If you listen to one of his improvisations and just concentrate on the shaping of his phrases, it can be a good reminder of how inventive and unpredictable a great jazz musician can be.

An audience of art lovers gathered for the show, which was mounted by Gold-Smidt Assembly and called Sølv. They seemed to find it very enjoyable — in turn, I liked the wall-hung ceramic honeycombs of Stine Jespersen and a 6ft block of South Wales coal carved into an enigmatically plain rectangular shape by Tom Price — but it would, of course, be great to hear Karsten playing at a music venue in London again.

Meanwhile he has a new album, Cry!,  on the Storyville label: a collaboration with the pianist Per Aage Brandt, his friend and compatriot, a poet and linguist who has lived for many years in France. In 1962 Brandt made a radio broadcast in Copenhagen with Albert Ayler, and the following year he became a member of Karsten’s quartet, which lasted until 1966, when the saxophonist joined Cadentia Nova Danica and Brandt went off to the Sorbonne to study semiotics.

Last October they reunited in a studio in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, where Brandt has made his home. Each of them brought one other musician: the bassist Flavio Perrella was summoned by the pianist, while the drummer Klaus Menzer came with Vogel. For five days they did nothing but play, the pianist and the saxophonist providing a set of challenging  but very appealing compositions and the four musicians coalescing into a a quartet that sounds like a genuine group.

The music is fresh and constantly surprising, with driving bop-influenced tunes and some gorgeous ballad-playing, and a slightly old-fashioned recording quality that suits it perfectly (what I mean is, you get a sense of room they’re in and the space between the musicians). To put it crudely, if Cecil Taylor had kept making progress on a straighter trajectory after his first handful of recordings, this is where his band might have ended up half a century later — which is no bad place to be.

Karsten switches to tenor saxophone for the final track, a duo version of “My Funny Valentine” chosen by Brandt as a homage to Ayler, with whom he used to play Richard Rodgers’ standard. The saxophone playing reminds the listener of Ayler’s idiosyncratic way with a ballad but also manages to be pure Vogel: a perfect way to close a deeply satisfying album which deserves wider international exposure than it will probably get.

Gold-Smidt Assembly’s Sølv is open to the public this weekend (May 13-15) at 49 Greek Street, W1 — but without music, alas.

The return of Burnin Red Ivanhoe

Burnin Red IvanhoeWhen I saw them playing with their Danish compatriot John Tchicai at the Berlin Jazz Festival in November 1969, Burnin Red Ivanhoe impressed me as the first significant contribution made to rock by a band from continental Europe. This was before Focus, Shocking Blue and Golden Earring from Holland, before the flood of German bands that included Amon Düül II, Can, Kraftwerk, Neu! and Tangerine Dream, before Wigwam from Finland, before PFM from Italy.

Basically, Burnin Red Ivanhoe had a rock rhythm section (guitarist Ole Fick, bassist Jess Stæhr and drummer Bo Thrige Andersen) and jazz horns: Kim Menzer on trombone, flute and harmonica and Karsten Vogel on alto and soprano saxophones. There was a bit of Uncle Meat-era Zappa in there, a bit of Soft Machine, maybe a bit of Who and Floyd. I was particularly taken by the eloquent, heartfelt playing of Vogel, who had also been a member of Tchicai’s Cadentia Nova Danica. Rather fashionably, they had just released a double album, titled M 144, which showcased their various dimensions: riffy rock, free blowing, the occasional burst of Scandi-whimsy.

I wrote about them a couple of times in the Melody Maker (in the days when the sub-editors were not above inventing headlines that made play with phrases such as Great Danes and Viking Invasion). John Peel played them on his programme and gave them a deal for a new album on his Dandelion label, which he co-produced (under his favourite pseudonym, Eddie Lee Beppeaux) with Tony Reeves, Colosseum’s bass guitarist, at CBS Studios in London. They toured a few times, and recorded another album in Copenhagen, called W.W.W., but eventually they disappeared from general sight.

Over the years I kept in occasional touch with Karsten. He’d give me recordings that showed his remarkable range: with his own fusion band, Secret Oyster (Straight to the Krankenhaus, CBS, 1976); on a nice solo album called Birds of Beauty (CBS, 1976), in a duo with the great Carnatic violinist Dr L Subramaniam (Meetings, Calibrated Records, 2007); playing tunes associated with Charlie Parker on a lovely quartet album called My Old Flame (Calibrated, 2010). There’s also an extraordinary album recorded with two singers, Hanne Siboni and Skye Løfvander, in Copenhagen’s vast disused underground water cisterns: Stained Glass Music (Oyster Songs, 2004) is a fascinating study in the sensitive exploration of a cathedral-like natural echo.

But the point of this post is the arrival of a new Burnin Red Ivanhoe album. Released by Sony in Denmark in artwork echoing the cover of M 144, with stencilled lettering on a plain background, the new one is called BRI and features two original members, Vogel and Menzer, with the latter’s son, Klaus, on drums, Assi Roar on bass, Aske Jacoby on guitar and Lone Selmer on voice and keyboards.

Quite often these late-life revivals don’t work. But this band — and Vogel, the chief composer, in particular — seems to have as much to say as it did 45 years ago, perhaps more. And the musicians certainly have better resources with which to say it. The mix of idioms sounds richer and much more assured as they switch from the whispered recitative and soprano/harmonica conversation over the irresistible descending sequence of “Natlig Rejse” to the folkish bluegrass strum of “Det Er Det”, the brittle power chords of “Tiden Om Tiden”, the gorgeous jangly pop of “Alting Var Bedre”, the gliding, glistening beauty of “Cafe Blåhat”, and the insistent “Mind the Gap”, whose lyric juxtaposes lines from Baudelaire and Poe with an announcement familiar to users of the London Underground (“Stand clear of the closing doors…”).

For old times’ sake, there’s also an absolute killer remake of “M 144”, with great alto from Vogel over a driving groove. But this album isn’t about the recreation of past glories. It’s about creation in real time, by real musicians who’ve made excellent use of the intervening years. What a shame Peel isn’t around to hear how good they’ve become.

* Photograph of Lone Selmer and Karsten Vogel by Mette Kramer Kristensen.