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Rudiger Carl: Book/Virtual Cowws

Bassist Peter Kowald and Rudiger Carl, who plays clarinet, tenor saxophone, and accordion, are first-wave European free improvisers whose work has been largely overlooked by even sympathetic factions of the U.S. music press. Yet, no survey of the European free improvisation movement would be complete without discussing their work. A co-founder of Globe Unity Orchestra, Kowald was one of the first European improvisers to gain a U.S. audience, co-instigating the ’80s Sound Unity festival in New York with William Parker. Carl made a signal move away from free jazz-related improvisation with his late ’70s incorporation of the accordion; intriguingly, many of his core collaborators since the early ’70s have been women-most notably pianist Irene Schweizer, bassist Joelle Leandre, and vocalist Shelley Hirsch. Cuts and the 3-disc Book/Virtual Cowws reveal Kowald and Carl to be unique voices on the European scene.

Cuts documents Kowald’s year-long nurturing of the 22-piece Ort Ensemble Wuppertal, a community-based pool of mostly young musicians.

With full complements of strings and winds, Kowald is able to employ rich timbral palettes and bold strokes of dynamics to create striking sound vignettes (all but two of the 20 pieces clock in at under five minutes). The OEW is very adept at ensemble improvisation; in this regard, Cuts compares favorably with the work of Butch Morris and Chris Burn’s Ensemble. But Kowald also deploys a trio of extremely strong guest soloists -soprano saxophonist Evan Parker, violinist Carlos Zingaro, and percussionist Le Quan Ninh-who provide engaging highlights without upsetting the overall ensemble balance. The only shortcoming is Kowald’s limited role as conductor; within the scope of European free improvisation, he is to the bass what such widely celebrated players as Parker are to their respective instruments.

Carl is one of the most idiosyncratic, if not perplexing, of all European improvisers. For starters, he has a strong compositional element to his work, and his penchant for the aleatory owes more to John Cage than to free jazz antecedents. Additionally, there is an anti-virtuosity element to his aesthetic. The 2-disc Book surveys Carl’s activities with appropriate randomness as to chronology or setting. In addition to performances by Carl’s main endeavors-September-Band with Hirsch, guitarist Hans Reichel, and drummer Paul Lovens, and Cowws Quintet with Schweizer, violinist Phil Wachsmann, guitarist Stephan Wittwer, and the late bassist Jay Oliver -there are substantive excerpts from performances including Maarten Altena, Han Bennink, and Louis Moholo. The material ranges from Giuffre-like clarinet blues to roiling free jazz, and beyond to Fluxus-flavored accordion pieces. The single disc Virtual Cowws, with Arjen Gorter replacing Oliver, is comprised of seven tape constructions, mixing together solo renditions of procedural scores by each musician. The results are far less cluttered than many improvisations, yet, given the process, retain a strange, spark-like quality; the irony of this contrivance is that the resulting music has an organic feel.

Originally Published