When 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.