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Sven-Ake Johansson/Axel Dorner/Andrea Neumann: Barcelona Series

Alongside Han Bennink, the Swedish-born, Berlin-based drummer Sven-Ake Johansson was one of the pioneers of European free improvisation. He performed on several early releases by saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, including the latter’s self-released debut, For Adolphe Sax, and the seminal Machine Gun (where he stoked the blast furnace alongside Bennink); and Johansson’s solo album Schlingerland/Dynamische Schwingungen (recently reissued by Atavistic) has attained classic status as well. But while Bennink has become well known to American listeners-due to frequent stateside appearances as well as his inimitable theatrical antics-Johansson remains largely unknown.

This is particularly unfortunate in light of the excellent albums Johansson has been turning out recently on the Hatology label, home to many a deserving maverick artist. Barcelona Series unites the drummer with two prominent representatives from the current crop of Berlin’s free improvisers: the spellbinding trumpeter Axel Dorner (who also appeared on Six Little Pieces for Quintet, Johansson’s archaeological dig into the roots of free jazz, issued in 2000) and “pianoharpist” Andrea Neumann, whose piano has been reduced to its bare skeleton, sans keys and pedals. The three first performed together as a trio in Barcelona, hence the title of this subsequent studio recording.

Annotator Peter Niklas Wilson draws attention to Johansson’s affinity with the industrial fantasies of the Futurist composers from the turn of the last century, illustrating the point by citing an earlier composition for 12 tractors and a performance with East German steel workers. The metallic bumps and mechanistic whirs that form the 11 short collective improvisations on Barcelona Series, Wilson further contends, are a continuation of John Cage’s musical aesthetic, which considered all sounds potentially musical.

What’s most striking about Barcelona Series, though, is how unmechanical most of the music sounds. True, Dorner frequently makes sounds with the trumpet that the horn was never designed to produce-everything from hissing gas pipes to guttural, grinding engines. Neumann adds crystalline cascades and creaking bedsprings, and evidently applies an electric fan to the piano strings a la AMM tabletop guitarist Keith Rowe. Johansson deftly coaxes a broad palette of timbres and textures from his simple kit. The performers place every note and sound in silent space as delicately and deliberately as Anton Webern or AMM, and if the sounds themselves may be akin to industrial noise, the careful volition with which they are combined is distinctly musical-and distinctly human.

Originally Published