Futterman's restless churning lines are countered by the questing trumpet of former Cecil Taylor associate Raphé Malik, who, along with drummer Robert Adkins makes The World Watched and Ask The Price enticing, thought provoking experiences. The collection's closing title, There Is Peace, provides the listener with a intensely swirling, though decidedly less harrowing, aural imagery."
Reuben Jackson, Jazz Times, April 1993
The trail of the decades we call home is recorded in certain cities as though they were dry lake beds or rock strata. These cities have spoken names whose associative sonorities come from the various ways in which they have marked our century. When the name Berlin is said, the sound is longer than its syllables, and bronze: the name has been heated, cast, tolled, scrapped, re-melted, and poured again. And has yet to be let out of the foundry as finished.
Because so little of the instant mindscan of gyrating, mutable Berlin seems commonplace, one of the residual unspoken charges against the Berlin Wall is that it was ordinary (seen from the West). And in its perversity, bewitchingly humanscale. It also, in the American perspective, came to seem like the last chapter: the sullen change that would forever make an eventful place into something static as well as partitioned.
American Improvised music is of its moment, but not always of its time. The Wall was a big-story barricade, framed as it hardened by a thrust to push those kinds of things aside elsewhere. Improvising composers of the period, continuing a grand general tradition of genteel indifference wanted not much to do with this galvanic political rostrum, not musically, at any rate.
As the Wall settled into its tenure, it also became a powerful icon that confirmed thematic art which had preceded it while inspiring fresh attempts to grapple with what it had come to represent. Here again the appeal of such a focus was largely lost on the improvising community in the U.S. Despite odes to such luminary structures as the Watts Towers or the Williamsburg Bridge, American improvised music has not been routinely based on static, man-made icons, regardless of scale or merit. Musicans in the States have typically been far more directly involved with matters of flux, immediacy, torsion, reactivity - the muscle tone of human living.
In this light, the changing of the border landscape from political experiment to tidal human experience will likely prove to be a subject of equally surging allure to composers and improvisers. As evidence this superbly titled recording, among the initial wave of referential works in the post-wall world, devotes itself entirely to the episode.
In fact, the lineage of the program here is rather unusual. Its spur came from producer Philip Egert, who wrote the poem which inspired this music during the peripatetic (parapetic) meeting of the Wall and its new owners. Pianist and composer Joel Futterman, having been as equally affected by those events as Egert, took the poem straight to heart and song, creating the three sections which comprise this recording. The poem "Berlin Images", incidentally, is one of series of works by Egert for which Futterman has written music, making this effort more that a casual collaboration. Egert then oversaw the subsequent recording session with this trio, thus able to hear the results of the partnership with all due immediacy.
The business of non-industrial music making is not without its quick rewards.
With that having been a rather circular experience, the project's creative genesis was also a centrifugal and accumulative process which owes its shape to a fortuitous confluence of time and events. Berlin has always been a notoriously nocturnal city, and typically reserved many of its major open border rave-ups for times of night that were truly after hours by any standards. That timing, however, allowed viewers on the American east coast (such as the principals here) to watch those events as they occurred during regular nightly television broadcast hours, giving the proceedings a binding immediacy that would have otherwise been diluted through editing and sound bite repackaging.
Over the course of an extraordinary series of days, these broadcasts became laced into a charged continuum, bright with the flicker of discrete images. This improbable long moment will likely remain a popular and convenient U.S. impression of the changed Berlin. However, the vitality of those dominant images nearly belies the breadth of experiences held within the overview. Thankfully, Egert's writing journeys beyond the exuberance of the nightly cathartic meetings as he considers the aggregate value and costs of our having arrived at that Berlineal point in time
Futterman, in turn, describes his music as being a tone poem, and it is audibly related to the printed verse. In fact, this piece was originally scored for voice, which accounts for its closeness to the text. Having had such a previous compositional life gives the music an added dimension: it creates a valuable conceptual tension similar to that which exists between the vocal and instrumental renderings of a jazz standard or show tune.
Accordingly, the music is built of a variety of moods, alternately sober and inquisitive, then clarion and emphatic as it joins with the verse in a reflection on the Berlin procession from a distant but sensitive vantage. Similarly, both works share an evocative economy of expression, in contrast to the richness of the televised rush to ramparts, as they attempt to include points of reference beyond the immediate glow of the prevailing montage.
From the composer's standpoint, this economy is to an immediate extent due to the chosen instrumentation. Futterman's past recordings have favored a general quartet format including bass, which makes its absence notable here. While this change has a timbral effect on the ensemble, it hardly has a functional one as listeners familiar with Joel's work would know. He is possessed of a left hand technique and concept that has long been strived for, hard-won, and that is not to be fully described, even with superlatives. Suffice it to say that he finds freedoms in the bassless arrangement here that other free ensemble leaders ironically once found in pianoless settings, and further to say that he uses those freedoms wisely.
So, too, does drummer Robert Adkins. Like Futterman, his approach to New Music is founded on purposeful discipline. Additionally, he has been listening to and working with Futterman's left handed strengths far more than with any bassist. The two have been rehearsing and performing together for years, with a lot of that time spent as a duet.
Their mutual development allows both the breadth of expression found in this recording, and the mighty control shown over the vital aspects of dynamics and density. These are of primary interest, as much of the New Music genre may be characterized by a lack of development in this regard, and because the success of this particular work rests to a large degree on the players' mastery of these elements. There are moments here that are thickly layered and note-rapid, yet which nearly whisper; conversely, there are moments taken at full volume that are as clear as a carillon. Regardless of situation, this unit can create musical tension by whatever means it wants, which is, at the very least, a liberating skill.
Futterman and Adkins were fortunate to have been able to rehearse this music in advance of the recording date. Trumpeter Raphé Malik, on the other hand, first saw the material in the studio just before the appointed hour. Great things have continually come from such fresh encounters, as most popularly witnessed by some of the benchmark Miles Davis sessions. Davis, however, would perhaps not have been comfortable with the challenge that Malik rises to answer here, chiefly that of being a following front line voice, one-taking it over the free and extended terrain of these compositions, with no control over the process other than what his musicianship affords. Malik, due to his long associations with Cecil Taylor and the late Jimmy Lyons (the latter an expecially dear one that Futterman and Adkins have likewise enjoyed), is no stranger to such tasks, and might not call them inhospitable. He shows himself to be sensitive and responsive to the various avenues of this music and a thorough listener, as he lays out and rejoins the others at critical junctures, always focused on the business at hand.
Malik's range of concept and delivery are compatible with Futterman and Adkins': crisp, dense, full-toned passages are balanced with long notes that trail out of volume and pitch as the music requires. He brings the kind of care to music that transcends the nature and limits of his instrument, in the context of this setting, his is an added voice in the best possible sense of the word.
Care is always precious, but in the case of this work, absolutely vital, for the group was recorded under distinctive circumstances. Even before the project was finalised, Egert had decided to schedule the date with engineer Pierre Sprey at Mapleshade Studio. Sprey's recording approach is as uncompromising as it is unorthodox, and in his studio the risks of creation may only be overcome by musicianship.
Sprey records with two microphones fixed in a proprietary array, suspended overhead in a single, open sound room. There are no headphones for the players, no giant control board, nor is there any heavy remedial management of recorded material. The result is as clear and actual an acoustic sound as one might imagine which is fair compensation for the musicians having shared the task of essentially performing live without a sound system or an audience.
The trio is clearly comfortable in this setting, making the studio guidelines as well suited to this project as any of the other challenges involved. Actually, as large as the challenges here might seem, they are also quite compatible. The story at hand is not fragrant, lighthearted or neatly clothed, but it works as a superb dance partner with the parameters of New Music.
Similarly, the altered Wall has proven to be well paired with its new requirements as a tactile, conductive meeting place and shrine. Along with the American Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Wall suggests that the uses we now have for such structures might finally move beyond barricade and more fully toward remembrance. The day may come where we use them exclusively to help us, as with improvised music, and as with a bent popular image of the tango, stare a glance backward as we dance ahead to something different.
William Tandy Young
1. Part One: The World Watched 31:20
2. Part Two: Ask the Price 09:06
3. Part Three: There is Peace 23:37
Joel Futterman piano
Raphé Malik trumpet
Robert Adkins drums