Karsten 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.