Posts Tagged ‘Neu!’

One of the true delights of any music festival is that, for a few days – or even just a few precious hours – you are in a strange and beautiful new world, away from the tangle and hum of city life. The 4th Jazzgroove  Summer Festival reigned over Sydney’s Redfern-Surry Hills Delta for four days in January, staking out the territory in the name of modern composition, improvised music and the jazz life.

And what a strange and beautiful world they conjured for us among the bricks and grime, the litter and the 7-11 Stores.

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I was fortunate to start at the very beginning, with Tom O’Halloran’s solo piano opener on Thursday at Surry Hills’ Tom Mann Theatre. A smart choice to open the Festival, O’Halloran’s sure touch made the piano sigh and glitter. His closer, a sparkling ‘No More Blues’ served as a teasing appetiser for a weekend of stellar music.

jazzgroove mothership orc

And stellar was the word (a TV sports cliché yes, but too apt to not use here) for Jonathan Zwartz’s band, up next. A Dream Team of players – Slater, Maegraith, Greening, Julien Wilson blowing (his and) our minds, Dewhurst, Matt McMahon, Hamish Stuart and percussionista Fabian Hevia holding it down with the calm river that is Zwartz himself. And from that calm river flowed strong and sure compositions, with melodic lines that were often country-simple but Gospel-true. From the opener ‘Shimmer’ through to ‘Henry’s High Life’, it was transfixing soul-blues that had the soloists reaching within – Phil Slater and Richard Maegraith especially going deep on the latter tune – leaving the audience at Tom Mann visibly affected. Like all true wisdom there was very little flash, but a universe of quiet fire.

The opening night was climaxed by the mighty Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra, paying tribute to genius jazz composer Bob Brookmeyer (who sadly passed from this earthly plane last year). Even though the Orchestra bristles with astounding soloists, it was the Festival’s International Guest Artist (I suppose Aotearoa counts as international) tenor magus Roger Manins that was featured on all charts. The Orchestra is truly a national treasure and for this, their 10th anniversary gig, they played better than I have ever heard them – snapping and roiling on the fiery pieces and painting colour washed mists on the quieter pieces such as the lovely ‘Fireflies’. Manins stood toe-to-toe with the band on the blasting finale, ‘See Saw’, his tenor sassing back and cajoling the Mothership. Big kudos to drummer Jamie Cameron who rode the roaring beast on all pieces with great style and verve.

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Friday was Fusion Day for me as I took in the electro-jazz of the Alcohotlicks at 505 and later, the flamenco-jazz of Steve Hunter’s Translators down the road at the Gaelic. It had been Sydney’s hottest day ever (!) on record and the evening was still dripping from the day.alcohotlicks

At 505, The Alcohotlicks’ Evan Mannell admitted to ‘shitting himself’ at the prospect of working without a drum kit. He then won us all over with a beautiful funky groove, cut-up on his sample box from Jimi Hendrix’s throaty ‘Who Knows’ riff. Joined by Ben Hauptmann on MIDI guitar and laptop, and Aaron Flower (the hoary traditionalist of the group who merely plays a guitar through an amp) the trio – winners of the inaugural Jazzgroove Association Recording Artist Award  – astounded with tracks from their album Danaïdes. ‘Neon’ was neo-NEU! motorik funk; ‘Baader’ was Goldfrapp/Moroder replicant-porn boogie. Did I sense a few members of the 505 audience shifting in their seats during the Alcohotlicks set? Artists such as these are the ones who move any music forward and all kudos to them for working at the edge of the Jazz comfort zone. A little seat shifting is always a good sign.

steve hunter, the translatorsDown the steaming street to the Gaelic. By now slightly drunk on the merlot and the humidity, I was taken away completely by The Translators. Too loud for the room – not a bad thing at all – electric bass toreador Steve Hunter and the quartet blazed through a set of flamenco-flecked originals that had Míro dancing with Manitas de Plata, Chick Corea dancing with de Falla in my swirling head. At times Ben Hauptmann’s electric mandolin solos sounded like a 70’s micro-Moog, the otherworldly tone beautifully offset by Damien Wright’s flamenco gut-string. ‘Turquoise’ was blue in green in orange. ‘The Last Trannie’ was Madrid via Soweto. Always a fiery and sparkling group, tonight – after not playing together for two years – The Translators shone like a Catalonian sun and lit all our faces with broad smiles. Not so long between sangrias next time, please amigos!

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the fantastic terrific munkle

Saturday my hangover needed the peace of Prince Alfred Park and the gentle afternoon humour of The Fantastic Terrific Munkle. Cool breezes blew, people picnicked on the grass, and from between two huge trees, The Munkle – powered by Sam Golding’s tuba and the (snake-)charming clarinet of Jeremy Rose – wove their musical tales of whimsy, recalling ragtime, Dixie, weird old blues and French salon jazz. The song announcements were made through a megaphone, the guitar amp was powered by solar panels and guitarist Julian Curwin wore thongs. It was all so sweetly organic, it made the afternoon time stand beautifully still.

Too much daylight – bah! Back into the night and the Steve Barry Trio with Alex Boneham and the quicksilver Tim Firth at 505. This is the trio that played on Barry’s recent album, Steve Barry – a startling album made (conjured from the elements, rather) by this startling combination of players. All the telepathic play and spiritual-empathic magic that lights up the album was here on stage tonight. Reminding me of Bill Evans’ trios or Keith Jarrett’s ‘standards’ trios, Barry-Boneham-Firth could spat and spar – as on opener ‘B.W.’ – or dissipate like evening mist across an introspective ballad such as the lovely ‘Epiphany’. Some of the most fluidly intelligent music in jazz has been made within the piano trio format and groups such as Steve Barry’s trio remind me why.

After the rollicking fun of altoist Ross Harrington’s vibey, young and fun Midnight Tea Party – Dixie, klemzer, ska flavours; a huge hit with the 505 crowd – we were treated to the Andrew Gander Band.

richard maegraithIn a Festival line-up luminescent with musical wonders, I can unreservedly say the Andrew Gander Band was the highlight for me – and I am sure many there would agree. His five-piece group hit their jaw-dropping stride from the first note and ascended from there. I had already seen each of Gander’s sidemen in other Festival groups but playing with Gander seemed to push each of them into the deeper reaches of their own musical universe. Tenor player Richard Maegraith seemed particularly inspired, blowing hard into the white-hot areas of his horn’s capabilties. (My friend, CC – who knows about such things – said after one of Maegraith’s solos “I could see his aura and light flashing off him!”) Bassist Brett Hirst twinned with Gander through all of the music’s twists and turns almost preternaturally. Steve Barry would smartly sit out during guitarist Carl Morgan’s solos, allowing the drum-bass-guitar trio to stretch the harmonies and rhythms into new fluid shapes. The Gander originals such as ‘Retrograde’ (with one of those sizzling rock feels that Billy Cobham does so well) and the 5/4 roller coaster ride of ‘Prism’ were just eaten alive by the band, who also managed great takes on radically reshaped standards such as ‘Star Eyes’ and Dizzy’s ‘Con Alma’.

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ben hauptmann, zoe and the buttercups

Where to go from there? Thankfully the Sunday program offered sweet soul relief in the form of Festival Guest Roger Manins and the original lineup of his soul-jazz champions, Hip Flask. To a packed 505, Manins’ testifying tenor led the quintet through ‘Bang’, ‘Big Sis’, ‘John Scon’ and others from their Jazzgroove catalogue. Against the indigo-blue Hammond of Stu Hunter, Adam Ponting’s peppery shards of piano dissonance put Hip Flask in their own category without losing any soul-jazz juice. The intro to ‘Blues for Adam Ponting’ moved in and out of harmonic focus until Manins brought us back to the planet with some real deep earth. (Manins was also one of the drollest bandleaders of the Festival, his tongue popping almost through his cheek at times during his stage announcements…)

By now saturated to the brim with music and fine 505 merlot, I took one last rolling stroll down Chalmers Street, climbing the stairs to the Gaelic to bid the Festival adieu with Zoe Hauptmann and her Buttercups. The six piece snapped my jaded mind awake with their patented country-soul stomp and Tele-blaster Aaron Flower’s always-exhilarating chicken-pickin’. Watching Ms Hauptmann leading her Buttercups up there, a question swam into my mind: Where were all the women musicians at the 4th Summer Festival? Ok, there was Zoe H and new bassist Hannah James (yes, Elana Stone too, but I am not counting vocalists in this equation) – that’s two out of an awful lot of male musicians. This is not a polemic point, nor is the question rhetoric; it is an honest query. The Con and other institutions turn out many many women musicians, musicians who have graduated alongside their male contemporaries, women musicians who are out there any night of the week paying as many gig dues as the guys. So why, when you get to the highest levels of jazz in this country – such as the annual Jazzgroove Festival – are women so insignificantly spoken for?

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In his Sunday night wrap-up speech, Jazzgroove President (and Buttercup trombonist) John Hibbard admitted that this year’s Summer Festival almost didn’t happen. The committee had sat around Matt McMahon’s dining table and voted on going through with it or not. It was that dire. After four days of wonderfully attended gigs by our best and brightest – and some performances that seriously deserve to pass into myth and legend – it is hard to believe that meeting ever took place. But positive energy ruled that day – the vote was to go ahead – and that same positive energy ruled the 4th Jazzgroove  Summer Festival.

And thank God, Miles and Duke that it did.

The Jazzgroove website is here.

Published January 2103 on australianjazz.net 

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The true artists of modernism make very much out of very little. In fact, many of the greatest have shaken the world with a handful of slight elements – in music: Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Black Sabbath and James Brown come to mind.

In 1971 Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger formed the band NEU! in Germany. Their musical philosophy and mission statement was to make a new music from the barest elements repeated until the idea was exhausted (a philosophy mirrored in the minimalist art music of the time and also in the visual arts). A way into this music was to expunge all traces of American rock, pop and blues influences from the performances.

On paper it looks frigid, inhuman and flavourless. In reality – in the hands of Rother and Dinger, with help and guidance from engineer Conny Plank – the music of NEU! (and Rother’s bands – such as Harmonia – and solo works that followed) contain some of the most uplifting, noble and achingly beautiful music of the late 20th/early 21st century. It is the musical path that lead to David Bowie’s “Heroes” and its tremors can still be heard today across all modern rock music.

Sydney was treated to an historical team-up for Michael Rother’s show at the Oxford Art Factory on Saturday night. Performing with Rother on the night was his Harmonia cohort, Dieter Möebius and on electric drums, Hans Lampe who played drums with NEU! in 1975. But this was not just an historical event –  the trio’s music sounded as sharp as tomorrow and full of power and surprise. And ecstatic beauty.

Before a large rectangular projection of pale olive and lime green blurs (a colour-shifted wheatfield swam in and out of focus) Rother would begin a groove or a vibe with a few notes; he would be joined by Möebius who would give further shape to Rother’s ideas as they built. The music would swim in and out of aural vision until Lampe started the motorik beat, and the whole thing would move forward, as if down a dot-lit highway in some European night.

Not enough can be said of the effect of the ‘motorik’ (trans: ’motor skill’) beat. It was perhaps one of the greatest aescetic thrills of NEU!’s 1971 debut, as heralded by the opening piece ‘Hallogallo’. A flat, straight eighth-note beat with backbeat on 2 and 4 of the bar, it does not vary in tempo or dynamic, rarely even utilising fills, and when there are fills, they are just more eighth-notes played across the toms. It is a perfect beat for rock and roll – see Maureen Tucker’s American take on motorik on the Velvet Underground’s early albums – primitive and modern all in one. Because it rarely varies it implies man-as-machine, but, as with everything about this music, it is deceptively funky. When Hans Lampe got going, every head in the place was bobbing to his motorik groove.

When I spoke with Michael for The Orange Press back in February (http://theorangepress.net/2012/02/qa-michael-rother-neu-kraftwerk-part-1/ and http://theorangepress.net/2012/02/qa-michael-rother-neu-kraftwerk-part-2/) we discussed his upcoming Australian shows and he said that “There was no chance to rehearse, but I know exactly what Dieter Möebius is capable of creating on the spot. So I am preparing the ‘backbone’ of the music, and I rely on Dieter adding special colours and spices to the music – that’s what he’s really great at: he can pick up the situation and come up with crazy ideas. I look forward to that experiment very much.”

With such an improvisational aspect to the music, it was even more surprising that it came together so seamlessly and with so much – dare I say it? – soul. As I looked around me at the height of the trio’s hurtling and thudding musical enmeshments, I saw many listeners bobbing their heads in time to the 8/8 beat, eyes closed, off in a world of their own.

And I asked myself: how can a music so devoid of harmony, so stripped of any syncopation or sophisticated rhythm, with melodies that are often flat and astonishly spare… how can that music conjure such feeling and high emotion? How can such bareness be so beautiful? Like so much contemporary art, this music gives the listener only part of the picture, often hazy suggestions, sometimes barely anything – we fill in the voids from the puzzle pieces of our own minds and experience. This is not any sort of explanation: the music is of course still utterly magical.

It is a magic road that rock music has gone down for 40 years now and it stretches out into the mapless future. To be taken for a ride by Michael Rother, Dieter Möebius et al was more than a thrill – after all, these men laid the diamond stones of that very road.

Published March 2012 on theorangepress.net

Guitarist, composer, producer and visionary, Michael Rother was a founding member of the bands NEU! and Harmonia, and a founding member of Kraftwerk. A collaborator with Brian Eno (and almost David Bowie) his musical vision – one of minimal elements, yet great beauty – has coloured, directly or indirectly, post 70s rock music indelibly.

Michael and his trio will be playing Brisbane, Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne in March, en route to a solo performance at the I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in Japan.

In the lead up to Michael’s Australian shows, I spoke to Michael on the line from Germany, on behalf of The Orange Press:

TheOrangePress: I’ll just go back the beginning. You met Ralf Hütter (with whom Rother formed Kraftwerk) when you worked together in a psychiatric hospital, and you jammed… You were interested in removing all the Blues from your music. Why was that?

Michael Rother: That was one element really. The main objective was to steer away from copying clichés that had influenced me in the years before, and to develop my own musical personality. One element which did not belong to my musical background – the history of central European music – was the element of Blues, which was what some of my musical heroes in the mid-60s were following, like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Growing up – at 18, 19 and 20 – thinking about my developing my own musical identity, being an individual and not a copy of somebody else, that’s when the necessity of leaving the Blues elements behind became strong. It’s simple to say Blues, but it was more than just Blues that had to be dropped.

TOP: Yes, the whole American thing?

MR: Well, all of the pop and rock music clichés. That sounds very ambitious and I know I wasn’t modest, but you have to aim high to change… to arrive at something new.

TOP: Well, you certainly did do that. You changed music forever I think by just doing that reasonably simple thing. With Kraftwerk and NEU! you worked with (producer and engineer) Conny Plank, whom you’ve said very nice things about. How did Conny Plank help shape your music?

MR: In the beginning I had no idea of studio technology – I was just a musician and Conny was an experienced engineer. That was one of the big qualities he brought along – he had so much talent, and he was obviously just as interested as we were in following crazy ideas… of created something different to what was around. And so we were natural allies in that respect. It was amazing and inspiring to watch Conny at work at the mixing desk. He had of course developed strong ideas of how to record the drums, for instance … he talked quite often about how to record drums. What amazed me was his capability of picking up our ideas, before we were able to actually express them. It was an intuitive process – that was very important because both (NEU! co-member) Klaus Dinger and I and later Roedelius, Moebius and I in Harmonia we had very strong ideas about what the music was to be, so we were not looking for someone to play an instrument (Conny also played instruments but in other projects). He knew that we were not looking for a different musician to play with us… his capabilities for organising our sounds were amazing. There were many situations when he added ideas to the recording process. Something I remember clearly was when he turned around the tape, when I recorded ‘Hallogallo’ (from NEU!’s first album) overdubs, and that really inspired me – I loved backwards guitars, even today I use loopers; I’m concentrating on playing live guitars with loopers. One of the most fascinating elements is the possibility of turning the music around, so it plays backwards. If you know Jimi Hendrix’s music, that is something we have in common…

TOP: Yes, and the Beatles… very much so. You mentioned Harmonia (Rother’s collaboration with Cluster members Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius) – what did Brian Eno contribute to Harmonia? Did he just drop in and out, or was he ever a member as such?

MR: Well, of course there is a lot of information that is not quite accurate on the internet about that. I’ll just tell you the story how everything developed. Harmonia played a concert in Hamburg in 1974. Brian Eno was in the first row, and he listened to us – we actually even jammed a little bit in the second half of the concert, and then we invited him to visit us. What impressed us was he told us he was quite aware of our music – he knew a lot of NEU!, Cluster and Harmonia – and at the time was talking to other British musicians about us, and exchanging records and discussing our ideas with them – for instance David Bowie. We invited Brian to visit us, just to play with us and exchange ideas further – and that took two years! He arrived in ’76, and by that time Harmonia didn’t exist anymore; we had separated in early Summer of ’76. We told him that’s the situation, but of course please come and visit us – and we got together again and the four of us ended up in the studio, jamming. We spent 10, 11 or 12 days just jamming – not really trying to record an album, but it was just the joy of creating without any pressure. That was the meeting of Harmonia and Brian Eno, that was all. He went away with several tapes full of music that we did; I had a four-track machine at the time –each of us had a track of their own – and Brian took the tapes with him. Actually he was on the way to record with David Bowie – I think that was Low – and the idea was for Brian to return but that didn’t happen. My first solo album came out in early ’77, and Brian returned to Conny’s studio to record with Cluster, so it all went a different way. So much was happening in such a short span of time.

TOP: You were going to play on (David Bowie’s) Heroes, weren’t you? What happened there?

MR: Well, that’s a mysterious story, because, at the time – just to give you a short version – I had phone calls with I think three or four different people. The first one was a secretary calling on behalf of David, asking me whether I was interested in working with David. Then I spoke with David for a long time – that was the second call – and everything was fine: he was totally enthusiastic about the idea of collaborating, and I was willing to do that, talking about the details of the production, etc. Then a third person called me, to talk about money, and I was in a way, maybe naïve or very hippiesque (laughs). I told him not to worry about the money; as long as the music we do is great, there will not be a problem – that was my attitude, and more or less this is still my attitude these days. I mean money is important, to get it right, but music has to be the first thing on your mind if you collaborate and not the third or fourth. And then the fourth person called me to tell me that David had changed his mind, and that I wasn’t needed. And then 30 years passed, and I read interviews David Bowie was giving in the UK – I think UNCUT was the first I noticed – where he was saying I turning him down, which was strange because that was not true. Anyway, David contributed a quote when we re-released NEU! in 2001 and we exchanged messages. So I guess it’s just my conclusion because there is this contradiction in memory – David thinking that I turning him down, and my recollection of it being quite different. You know that David Bowie’s experimental phase when it started in the ‘70s was not popular with the fans and the record company – sales were going down, Low was not doing well, and maybe there were some people in his environment – management, record company – who were afraid of David following that experimental path even further and adding another crazy guy like me to the session. So maybe somebody decided to protect David from himself. But I have no proof of that theory.

TOP: It’s very interesting that both Low and the NEU! albums were not commercially great but they have been so amazingly influential in the fullness of historical time. With Krautrock – I don’t really like that term – or rather, German experimental rock music, Jaki Leibziet from CAN played on your first four solo albums…

MR: I’m grateful you don’t like that expression (Krautrock) because I don’t either…

TOP: I think it’s horrible. It’s very derogatory in my opinion – I’ve never liked it at all. But I was thinking about all the German experimental groups of the time: NEU! and Kraftwerk were very different from bands like Amon Düül and CAN, in my opinion. Did you feel as if NEU! was very different, or were you all going for the same sort of thing?

MR: Of course I preferred to think that we were very different, because that was of course my aim – trying to create a music that was completely independent, not only from my musical past but also completely different from what anybody else was doing. There was not a feeling of a collective of German musicians that were doing the same thing. And to be quite honest, apart from the musicians I collaborated with, I wasn’t very much interested in what was happening in Germany either. I think there are very big differences in the music of NEU! and Amon Düül and Faust. I didn’t really listen to what they were doing – I was fascinated by the Kraftwerk people, Klaus Dinger, the Cluster guys, and that was the music I wanted to create. But of course, if you look at the musical scene in Germany from far away, like from the Moon…

TOP: …or even Australia (laughs).

MR: (Laughs) No that’s not far away… Things move closer together. So if you compare us to the Beatles, or other classical music, or folk music, or Deep Purple or something like that then of course the ‘family’ of German music of the ‘70s does have something in common maybe, something more like a spirit. I think I prefer to leave the finding of differences to journalists and other people; it may sound a bit big-headed if I try.

TOP: On your 1983 solo album Lust, you made it entirely solo on a Fairlight (synthesizer), but you seem to generally like to work with a band and other musicians. Do you prefer to work with a band?

MR: We are talking about a process of 40 years already. First, you experience a certain situation… you have to react to circumstances. That was the case in ’71 when Klaus Dinger and I decided to start the project NEU! as a duo, which was strange because, as we found out later, it was obvious we couldn’t play as a duo live… it was possible to record an album together with the help of multi-track machines. And later on, my solo albums were very popular in Germany; they sold a lot of copies and I was able to buy all the studio gear, the professional recording gear. I was completely happy to spend weeks and months – and years even – in my studio developing music. That was a dream come true for a musician, to have all those machines. Then the situation changed again with the arrival of notebook computers – in the late ‘90s it was possible to present interesting music onstage without a band, so I started collaborating with Dieter Moebius again, and we did several tours around the world. Parallel to this development the situation changed as our music… it had to do with the internet I guess: the world got smaller and I sudden started to find out about other musicians who knew my music, bands like Stereolab or Sonic Youth, and later on (The Red Hot) Chilli Peppers for instance, and Secret Machines. It was a new situation and I met musicians I liked and there was opportunity to collaborate. This has been the situation for the last 12 years or so, and I started enjoying playing live much more. In the ‘80s I wasn’t interested in playing live; I was fascinated by the studio atmosphere and the possibilities of sound creation with the Fairlight computer. Do you know that this (the Fairlight synthesizer) came from Australia?

TOP: Yes I do, that’s right.

MR: It was a great machine, and at the time I was so thrilled I spent months researching and trying to work with its very complicated software. Lust was the first album that was created on the Fairlight, mostly. Maybe I overdid it but it was wonderful for me to write music and let the machine play music that I couldn’t play with my limitations on the keyboard. And to create and integrate sounds that, before the arrival of the Fairlight computer, were not available for my music – I would have had to ask an orchestra to play. The sampling technology in the early ‘80s was a bit different from nowadays – it was 8-bit and it sounded like 8-bit. Nowadays people sometimes use the 8-bit limitations to create a certain effect… but at the time I was so thrilled by that machine. Nowadays it is the meeting with other musicians that sometimes really inspires me, like two years ago when I did all the concerts with my project, Hallogallo with Pete Shelley and Aaron Mullen… and last year I met a young band from Germany called Camera – we jammed twice – and we will be doing some live appearances this year. We are booked for a festival in Athens and we are talking about going to Russia as well, so this will be a very colourful year I think.

TOP: That’s wonderful. And you are coming to Australia in March.

MR: Yes, this is what I am preparing for right now. I’ll be in Japan for a solo concert that just came up recently. Jim Rourke, in the early days he was a member of Sonic Youth, he lives in Japan – I think he even grew up in Japan – we both did a concert in Yamaguchi in Japan last year. So we met there. He was invited by ATP (All Tomorrow’s Parties) to curate one of the two days of the I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in Japan, so he invited me to play there. The first step is the Australian tour with Dieter Moebius and Hans Lampe, which will the first time that this collaboration will come together on stage.

TOP: That will be fantastic. With Dieter Moebius, after all this time. That will be wonderful; I am very much looking forward to it.

MR: There was no chance to rehearse, but I know exactly what Dieter Moebius is capable of creating on the spot. So I am preparing the ‘backbone’ of the music, and I rely on Dieter adding special colours and spices to the music – that’s what he’s really great at: he can pick up the situation and come up with crazy ideas. I look forward to that experiment very much.

Published February 2012 on theorangepress.net