Graded on a Curve: Manfred Schoof, European Echoes

The collecting of Free Jazz vinyl is commonly an expensive consumer habit, but the Cien Fuegos label has returned to print one of the key documents from the late-‘60s avant-garde improv scene with Manfred Schoof’s European Echoes. To be clear, this kind of racket ain’t for everybody, but those with a love of the form have the swell opportunity to possess a once elusive, and highly worthwhile object, and they definitely shouldn’t pass it up.

While Free Jazz has come to be accepted by most as a legit and vital element in whole improvisational discourse, there was a time when the topic was quite the divisive one. Those dead-set against the movement mainly saw Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler as charlatans, sized-up the later works of John Coltrane as a man who’d lost his bearings, tagged Cecil Taylor as a non-swinging interloper, dismissed Archie Shepp as an agitator low on technique, identified Anthony Braxton as being stained by his academic background, and gave Sun Ra short shrift as the leader of an oft-cacophonous spectacle.

If the records of these historical heavyweights caught all sorts of flack, then the material produced by their lower-profile followers was frequently assessed by the anti-avant-garde brigade as being beneath contempt; thusly, the LPs of these lesser-known figures (say, Noah Howard, Marzette Watts, Clifford Thornton, and Rev. Frank Wright, to name just four) became the makings of a dynamically rich free jazz underground.

But if swatted away by those detractors as an annoyance that momentarily obstructed the unimpeded progression of jazz as an essentially safe and conformist tradition, the sounds of the abovementioned avant-titans and the heaving underbelly they inspired were all at least American and most of African descent, so the (often Caucasian) gatekeepers of Jazz Propriety had a hard time in convincingly relating the movement as an “abnormal” one.

And it should be noted that the anti-crowd didn’t appraise all avant stuff equally; some disliked Coleman as a flawed innovator but cherished Taylor as an athletic and single-minded groundbreaker, others gave Coltrane and Sun Ra a fair hearing because they’d grown legitimately out of the tradition, and yet blew off Ayler as a self-schooled eccentric, and a few dug The Art Ensemble of Chicago as an expansion of the collectivity found in early jazz while ripping into the work of Braxton as somehow undermining the music’s bona fides by introducing non-jazz elements into the framework.

However, those who derided all of the above with an equal, homogeneous vigor…well, they were not only holders of a musty and intolerant ideology, but if this bunch of carping crabs had been exposed to the surges of the European free jazz scene that was taking place in the late-‘60s and early-‘70s, a few of their number just might’ve blown a full-on head gasket and ransacked the nearest record store.

The truth of the matter is that if a sturdy American free jazz underground existed, the Euro junk taking place during a roughly overlapping period was so off the radar screen in the USA that those Moldiest of Figs simply had no earthy idea that the wild rumpus even existed. And jumping ahead a few decades found the most championed vets from the Continent and UK, saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, guitarist Derek Bailey, and reed-man Evan Parker for a few examples, persisting as merely names on the printed page for far too many interested listeners.

It’s been said that during the ‘70s the Euro free jazz presence was all but non-existent in US record store bins, and this circumstance joined together with the lack of North American press coverage to make it an extremely vital scene that the vast majority of those residing on the left side of the pond would discover only in retrospect. Moving forward to the end of ‘80s, the situation had changed somewhat, but for those located outside of major urban areas, being restricted to just reading about (and salivating over) the records was still very much the norm.

To be frank, free jazz in any form was never a major unit-shifting enterprise, even when pedigreed label names like Atlantic (responsible for Coleman’s early records), Impulse (home for Coltrane, Shepp, Ayler, and Marion Brown amongst others) and Blue Note (who brought the world twin masterpieces from Cecil Taylor, Unit Structures, and Conquistador!) were present on the LP’s spine.

Smaller label discs were often lost in a sea of overzealous commercially, and the Mom-and-Pop shops, more than willing to special order anything they could get their hands on, were regularly kneecapped by distributors that cared not at all for yielding precious warehouse space to music that might sell only a handful of copies. Yes, mail order was an option, but when a rather large ocean got thrown into the equation, the situation became time-consuming, risky, and often frustrating (e.g., records slipping out-of-print before a person even knew of their existence.)

Around the turn of the century the Chicago label Atavistic stepped up and filled a major void with their John Corbett-curated Unheard Music Series. While not specifically devoted to unleashing a hefty spate of European improv-wildness (for they also included scarce or effectively lost US releases from Joe McPhee, Sun Ra, Clifford Thornton, Luther Thomas’ Human Arts Ensemble and even early-jazz drum maestro Baby Dodds), the imprint did a fantastic job of making a whole heap of early, Euro-based goodness easily available to all and in so doing they provided a whole ton of once elusive context.

Because by 2000, it had become a lot easier to hear later recordings from the musicians that shaped this scene, but the material that defined their early days, especially the albums issued by the German label FMP (or Free Music Production), were highly rare and often maddeningly pricey. With the arrival of the Unheard Music Series however, many of these storied spurts were the stuff of legend no longer.

One of the UMS’ most welcome entries was the very first release on FMP, 1969’s European Echoes. Credited to trumpeter Manfred Schoof, it features a 16-member band whose aggressive approach to the principles of collective freedom is still a head-shaking wonder to experience. If it had been widely available in the States at the time of its release, it surely would’ve stirred up some massive indignation (and perhaps even a proposed trade embargo), but those with ears attuned to the avant-garde would’ve had little difficulty understanding the music’s roots.

For starters, there was ‘61’s Free Jazz – A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet. That disc, easily the most controversial in Coleman’s young career, found two four-piece groups augmented with the same instrumentation (and separated by stereo channel) entering into a musical conversation so beautifully abstract (and yet easily identifiable to open ears as jazz, though perhaps I shouldn’t speak for everyone who listened to it in good faith at the time) that a detail of Jackson Pollack’s painting The White Light was integrated into the original LP’s design.

But even closer to European Echoes was Coltrane’s 1965 masterwork of large band free jazz Ascension. For one thing, ‘Trane’s group is bigger than Coleman’s (featuring eleven contributors), but the music he shepherded is also darker (though just as gorgeous as Ornette’s vision) and in deep consort with the Fire Music aesthetic of the time, a sensibility that’s undoubtedly a shaping element in European Echoes’ 31-minute single (divided over the vinyl’s two sides) track.

What all three records clearly share, and what receptive Americans would’ve surely picked up on had European Echoes been available for the hearing back then, is a detectable strategy underneath the supposed mayhem of these recs. And if by ‘69 Free Jazz could almost sound quaint (of course, that’s not really true for those who continue to listen deeply to the record to this day), European Echoes was a reenergizing of the avant impulse from way across the water, for a certain frustration and restlessness had crept up after the deaths of Coltrane and Ayler.

And if FMP had somehow finagled a licensing agreement in the US, then folks could’ve easily understood that the Schoof document was just one part of a Fire Music rekindling as strong and diverse as the expatriate one documented by the French BYG/Actuel label. Indeed, European Echoes, cut in June of ’69, combines pretty well with two other FMP releases, Alexander von Schlippenbach’s The Living Music, a septet recorded two months earlier and The Peter Brötzmann Octet’s Machine Gun, which tore the roof off the studio in May of that year of rage, 1968.

While European Echoes sports the largest lineup and was recorded last, it sorta sits in the middle of two extremes. On its right side is The Living End, on which both Brötzmann and Schoof appear along with the leader, trombonist Paul Rutherford, bassist/trombonist Buschi Niebergall, drummer Han Bennink, and bass clarinetist/saxophonist Michel Pilz. That disc surely holds a surplus of lung-frenzy and percussive power, but is also quite tuneful at times, a trait that is largely attributable to von Schlippenbach, who had extensive prior experience as an “inside” player.

Flanking European Echoes’ left is Machine Gun, which along with Brötz, Bennink, and Niebergall, finds Evan Parker, bass clarinetist/saxophonist Willem Breuker, pianist Fred Van Hove, drummer Sven-Åke Johansson, and bassist Peter Kowald contributing to one of the most uncompromising aural documents ever conceived by humankind. Machine Gun seized Fire Music and turned it into a bomb blast. The Living End took the tradition “outside,” but Machine Gun was a truly blistering protest record; and fitting for ’68, it left no room for middle ground, a quality that hasn’t actually changed much in 45 years.

If between these two poles, European Echoes carves out a distinct niche. Brötzmann, Rutherford, von Schlippenbach, Niebergall, Bennink, Van Hove, Kowald, and Parker are all here, along with Derek Bailey, drummer Pierre Favre, saxophonist Gerd Dudek, pianist Irène Schweizer, bassist Arjen Gorter and trumpeters Enrico Rava and Hugh Steinmetz. That’s three trumpets, three saxophones, three pianos, three basses, two drummers, a trombonist and one hairy-assed guitar. Or, more succinctly put, a whole ton of firepower.

And European Echoes seemingly leans closer to the frenzy of Machine Gun than the more considered ruminations of The Living End, but that’s not really the truth of the matter. For if a whole lot of ruckus is delivered, with close inspection, the methodical nature of the endeavor becomes readily apparent. After an abrupt opening of rhythmic clatter and a short amplified burst from Bailey (you don’t really think he’d chose his acoustic for this session, do you?) and a hint of Rutherford’s ‘bone, comes the scathing wails from Parker’s horn as the pianos and drums provide clamorous accompaniment.

After a convulsive fanfare, Rutherford gets his spot to shine, and the intensity only rises. Brötzmann arrives next, making his sax sound like an incensed robot Godzilla that’s been shot in the foot by a bazooka. Then there’s a lengthy collective rumble that gives way to a torrid spot from Rava as the drums go bonkers behind him. So far, so full-tilt overboard, but next is a section where everyone drops out save for the three pianos, and the result is a fascinating excursion into advanced improv dialogue.

That ends “Part One.” The second half opens with the just the drummers engaging in interplay. The prolific Bennink is simply one of the great kit scientists ever spawned (though Favre’s no slouch either), and for many free jazz dabblers, this section will provide the most easily digestible momentum (i.e., the “entry point”) on the record. And the way their percussive tangle weaves into the next portion, gradually exiting and leaving the three bassists to conjure a dense thicket of toughly-plucked notes, should keep a lot of novices in tune with the album’s subsequent progression.

For soon comes a return to collectivity, Dudek tearing into his reed with tenacity as a rumble supports him from underneath. Steinmetz and Schoof take the last spots, each with a distinct solo stamp. In the final moments all the players surge, and then the final sound, appropriately, is that of a resonating cymbal.

The only real disappointment in European Echoes admittedly brief running-time (though I’ve never really felt like I’ve needed more after listening) is the sonic clarity. The word muddy has been used to describe its ambiance, and that’s spot on. After his brief solo flurry, Bailey is lost in the mix, for instance. But there’s also a vérité aspect to the limitations of the audio, the sound of a group of inspired musicians overwhelming the capacity of mere microphones, so to my ears it’s not a particularly big issue.

But certainly large is the music’s conception, which is directly related in the title; European – Schoof, Brötzmann, Dudek, von Schlippenbach, and Kowald are German (as was the late Niebergall), Parker, Bailey, and Rutherford are British, Bennink is Dutch, Favre and Schweizer are Swiss, Rava is Italian, Steinmetz is Danish, Van Hove is Belgian, and Gorter hails from Holland. Echoes – as stated, this LP is very much a reaction to, a conversational extension of, the previous American advances in avant-garde jazz.

And this is what it shares with The Living End; both the Schoof and von Schlippenbach recordings reveal a closer relationship to the beating heart of US free jazz than the unleashed primal fury of Machine Gun. Hearing all three of these records as released by the Unheard Music Series was a serious treat, but they were unfortunately CD and digital only. In a great development, the Austrian record label Cien Fuegos has undertaken a vinyl reissue program of Euro free jazz that includes both this LP and The Living End.

So, for vinyl lovers with a hunger for free jazz history the door is currently wide open. And they might be a little pricey, but they are imports, and are pressed on 180-gm wax in the bargain. And since European Echoes was the very first FMP release, starting here makes a whole lot of sense, for the music has lost none of its intensity and its importance as a declaration of avant-garde principles remains secure.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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