Improv Geography

BY David DacksPublished Nov 1, 2002

In terms of adventurous jazz and "non-idiomatic improvised music" (in the words of Derek Bailey), four European countries have supported these distinct cultures since the ‘60s and share many commonalties: well developed free improv scenes that picked up where American ideas left off; the presence of large orchestras that serve as breeding grounds for new talent; the influence of minimalism and other 20th century music on the improv vocabulary; and jazz festivals and clubs acting as a network for gigs. In recent years, the increased prevalence of electronics has further reduced the influence of America's "classic" jazz sensibilities in free improvisation.

The Netherlands
Modern Dutch jazz first appeared on record with drummer Han Bennink and pianist Misha Mengelberg, who played on Eric Dolphy's Last Date. With saxophonist Willem Breuker, Mengelberg created the Instant Composer's Pool in 1966. This large orchestra was spontaneous and theatrical, with droll, carnival-like elements. It attracted musicians from England and Germany, and introduced new Dutch talents such as Ab Baars. Bennink and Mengelberg went on to forge a Dutch musician's union and performance centre. The Netherlands has supported several large jazz festivals for decades, especially in the Hague, but generally few record labels. One important exception was Breuker's BVHAAST. The original movers of Dutch creativity are still at it, and the combination of live venues, an international fan base and several strong urban scenes ensure the vitality of improvised music in Holland.
Key Recordings: Clusone 3 Soft Lights and Sweet Music (hatHUT, 1993); Leo Cuypers Heavy Days Are Here Again (BVHAAST, 1981/Atavistic, 2001); The Ex and Tom Cora Scrabbling at the Lock (Cargo, 1991); Fred Lonberg-Holm/Jaap Blonk/Michael Zerang First Meetings (Buzz, 1999)

Germany quickly became known for fiery free jazz with the stunning debut of pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra in 1966. This huge orchestra was a crashing wall of sound featuring a European union of players. Germany's jazz recording industry started around that time as well, with the vital free jazz record label FMP. Around 1970, the best known German jazz label signed on: ECM. This label's signature is a chilly, spacious sound; it's been the launching pad for numerous German, European and American artists. "Krautrock" also frequently contained improvised notions, Can being the most notable example; Jaki Liebezeit was an early Globe Unity member. With the existence of many festivals in Germany, exchange between American and home grown players is ongoing. This may be a reason why German jazz is more popular than ever in the U.S., with Chicago sax player Ken Vandermark championing saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, and the late great bassist Peter Kowald (who died in September), was a constantly touring ambassador throughout the U.S.
Key Recordings: Peter Brotzmann For Adolphe Sax (FMP, 1967/Atavistic, 2001); Globe Unity Orchestra 1967-70 (Atavistic, 2001); Alexander Von Schlippenbach The Living Music (FMP, 1969/Atavistic, 2001); Fritz Hauser Solodrumming (hatART, 1985)

Great Britain
England's jazz scene has retained the most American influences and has gained strength not only from home grown musicians, but from the Afro-Caribbean community and rock crossover scenes. Jamaican altoist Joe Harriott began exploring freedom during the late ‘50s, and recorded Indo-Jazz Fusions, featuring Kenny Wheeler, during the mid-‘60s. London supported a great many players in the mid-‘60s such as Trevor Watts and John Surman. Three ensembles were of great importance: the Brotherhood of Breath (expat South Africans and their British friends marrying freedom to folk and jazz forms); the self explanatory Spontaneous Music Ensemble, led by John Stevens; and Derek Bailey's Company, which put musicians who had never met before into the studio. The Canterbury prog rock scene reflected jazz inclinations in King Crimson and Soft Machine, while one name sometimes associated with this scene went on to become one of Britain's best known composers: pianist Keith Tippett. Britain has not supported much of a jazz recording industry, and its festivals are less prominent than those on the continent, but jazz and improv has been taken very seriously on an academic level and most players, free or otherwise, since the ‘70s have been educated in or have taught jazz. In the last couple of decades, Simon H. Fell and John Butcher have been important British improvisers.
Key Recordings: Brotherhood of Breath Brotherhood (RCA, 1972); Keith Tippett's Ark Frames (Ogun, 1977); Company 6 & 7 (Incus, 1977); Simon Picard/Paul Rogers/Tony Marsh News From The North (Intakt, 1991); John Butcher 13 Friendly Numbers (Acta, 1992)

As with many countries in Europe, a jazz presence existed from World War II onwards, and Stockholm tended to be a magnet for musicians throughout Scandinavia and beyond. During the ‘60s, a generation of young musicians were galvanised by the guidance of George Russell, the under-appreciated American composer living in Stockholm. His large bands contained musicians from throughout Scandinavia that would become much more famous in years to come: Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Arild Anderson, and Jon Christensen. Don Cherry was another influential expat in Sweden; he encouraged musicians such as Eje Thelin and Bengt Nordstrom. Since the ‘80s the brightest light of Swedish improv has been Mats Gustafsson, who works frequently with Chicago musicians. Gustafsson's AALY Trio and Gush (with Raymond Strid and Sten Sandell) have made a worldwide impact during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Key Recordings: Jan Garbarek Afric Pepperbird (ECM, 1970); AALY Trio & Ken Vandermark Stumble (Wobbly Rail, 1999); Sven Ake Johansson Schlingerland (Atavistic, 2001); Gush, From Things To Sounds (Dragon, 1990)

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