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Samuel Blaser Calls in From Funkhaus Nalepastraße

The trombonist records his latest album at the East German landmark

Samuel Blaser finds a comfortable environment (photo:Jean-Baptiste Millot)
Samuel Blaser finds a comfortable environment (photo:Jean-Baptiste Millot)

Though 18 Monologues Élastiques is, technically speaking, a solo album, it’s evident from the outset that Samuel Blaser was not alone during its recording. It opens with the sound of echoing footsteps, and Blaser’s trombone enters only after several seconds, a distant echo from somewhere far off. The steps quicken as the sound draws closer, making the track, “Appearance,” an act of discovery rather than a simple improvisation.

It’s an ideal entry point for listeners, drawing them in along with their mysterious guide—who, it turns out, is Blaser’s semi-silent partner in the project, producer and sound designer Martin Ruch. The recording itself became an act of literal exploration for the pair, who spent nights wandering the hallways and studios of East Berlin’s largely abandoned Funkhaus Nalepastraße. Once the largest radio broadcasting studio in the world, the Cold War relic provided inspiration for Blaser not because of its once state-of-the-art facilities, but from its musical and political ghosts.

“Martin and I saw it as a playground,” the Berlin-based trombonist said over the phone from his native Switzerland, where he was spending the quarantine summer with his wife and two children at his parents’ home. “We were very excited to explore those empty spaces, walking around with haunting spirits. Lots of the stones that they used to build it came from the [Reich Chancellery] building, so you had all kinds of different ghosts. Then during the break we would eat at the Milk Bar, which is still open with the same decor as in Communist times, so it was like traveling back in time.”

Blaser wanted a clean break from his first solo outing, 2009’s Solo Bone, which he now dismisses, saying, “You can really hear the influence of Albert Mangelsdorff.” So he approached Ruch, and the two decided to make the recording environment central to the sound of the album; the Funkhaus proved an inspired choice. The vast facilities offered a stunning variety of sonic environments for Blaser to interact with, from the large studio where Daniel Barenboim used to record with a symphony orchestra to the “dead room” where Foley artists would reenact the sound effects for films, to the unique reverberations of the hallways and bathrooms.

Though 18 Monologues Élastiques is Blaser’s most explicit example of improvisation as investigation, that notion has long been key to his work. With the band Consort in Motion, he’s put a jazz spin on the music of medieval and Baroque composers like Guillaume de Machaut and Claudio Monteverdi. His 2018 quartet album Early in the Mornin’ pays inventive tribute to the blues, with pianist Russ Lossing, bassist Masa Kamaguchi, and drummer Gerry Hemingway. 1291, a new outing with fellow Swiss improvisers Daniel Humair and Heiri Känzig, celebrates the founding year of the trio’s shared homeland with a set split between free playing and New Orleans trad jazz (the patriotic hook is a bit of a stretch, Blaser admits). And next year he hopes to record his tribute to pioneering Jamaican ska trombonist Don Drummond.

“I like to choose themes for a recording because I’m interested in the research,” Blaser explains. “I love discovering new music or reading more about a musician that I’m fascinated by. It gives me some material to bite into.”

The frequent recurrence of early music in Blaser’s work—a Gregorian melody emerges prominently on 1291—is a remnant of his early conservatory studies. He grew up in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a city that jazz expats Sidney Bechet and Kenny Clarke both once called home, and was raised on a steady diet of his mother’s Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong records. Early on, Blaser set his mind toward playing jazz, but his parents insisted on classical training.

In 2005 Blaser moved to New York on a Fulbright scholarship, where he studied at SUNY Purchase with Jim Pugh and John Fedchock. Soon he fell in with a crew of adventurous players including Scott Dubois, Thomas Morgan, and Gerald Cleaver, who would make up the quartet for his 2008 debut, 7th Heaven. His 2009 follow-up Pieces of Old Sky featured Morgan, Todd Neufeld, and Tyshawn Sorey; for the first Consort in Motion album in 2011 he enlisted Paul Motian, mere months before the legendary drummer’s death.

Blaser returned to Europe in 2009, making his home in Berlin and embarking on a series of collaborations that remain fruitful today. He’s recorded often with the Swiss drummer Pierre Favre, and is featured in several groups led by the French guitarist Marc Ducret. His richly textured, alternately delicate and explosive interactions with the latter are showcased in a series of recordings that Blaser has released via Bandcamp while on COVID lockdown, both in duet and in a trio with drummer Peter Bruun.

A recent recording gave Blaser the chance to continue his environmental explorations with Ducret, as the two played together in a wooded region of Brittany. “It reminded me of playing in an enclosed space, but we were outside listening to the birds and the sea coming up,” Blaser describes. “It was amazing.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.