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For Pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach’s 79th Birthday, A 2013 DownBeat Feature

I’m a fan of the German pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach, a pioneer in the development of speculative improvising in Germany and on the broader European scene, both through his involvement in Globe Unity Orchestra, his long-standing trio work with Evan Parker, his own ensembles, his comprehensive investigation of the Thelonious Monk’s corpus, and his concept of improvising in a 12-tone context. I had an opportunity to interview Schlippenbach in Heidelberg in November 2012, and to document that encounter in Downbeat in an early 2013 issue. I’m posting that piece in honor of his 79th birthday.

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In 2004, pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach observed the sixtieth birthday of his old friend Evan Parker by presenting him with a folio containing the complete works of Thelonious Monk, hand-transposed in pencil from the key of C to a saxophone-friendly B-flat.

While this extravagant gesture denoted Schlippenbach’s loving esteem for a kindred spirit, it also encapsulated his decades of immersion in Monk’s music, as documented on Monk’s Casino [Intakt], a 3-CD opus from 2005, on which Schlippenbach assembled a quintet to perform Monk’s entire corpus in a single evening of three 75-minute sets. Seven years later, Intakt released Schlippenbach Plays Monk [Intakt], a solo piano meditation on which he intersperses less-traveled Monk repertoire with original works and improvisations based on 12-tone material, a subject that Schlippenbach explored on the intense, mid-aughts solo recitals Twelve Tone Tales (Volumes 1 and 2) [Intakt], and on 2011’s Blue Hawk [Jazz Werkstadt], on which he and trumpeter Manfred Schoof, a his collaborator for more than half-a-century, perform 15 duets. Serial music refracted through a jazz sensibility is also part of the fabric of Iron Wedding [Intakt], documenting a 2008 two-piano encounter with pianist Aki Takase, Schlippenbach’s life partner.

“In the same way that Alex is an undying fan of Monk, he’s also an undying fan of Schoenberg,” said Parker, who first played with Schlippenbach in 1968. In 1972, he joined Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens in a still ongoing trio—most recently heard on Gold Is Where You Find It [Intakt], from 2007—that has remained steadfast in its commitment to tabula rasa improvising over the ensuing forty years.

“He’s assembled a huge arsenal of patterns and vertical structures,” Parker continued, noting that these raw materials are the bedrock of the spontaneous conversation undertaken by the trio—or the international ensemble known as the Globe Unity Orchestra, of which the trio is the core—in any performance. “Nothing is discussed in advance, and everything is allowed. What matters is what happens after the first gesture.”

Schlippenbach launched the Globe Unity Orchestra in 1966 at Germany’s Donaueschingen Festival, a premier showcase for European contemporary music. It was a ground zero moment in what Joachim-Ernst Berendt has termed “Die Emanzipation,” denoting the process by which a trans-national cohort of young musicians from Britain and the Continent, initially inspired by such American avatars as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler, broke away from their models and started to develop their own sounds.

“Globe Unity was like a hopeful political metaphor,” said George Lewis, who referenced his own long history with GUO in the program notes for the 2006 date Globe Unity—40 Years [Intakt], on which he also performed, augmenting recent collaborations with Schlippenbach in both the Trio and various chamber configurations. “He’s addressing European contemporary music, which is perceived as a very elite, high-culture art form, and he says, ‘I am going to play jazz and jazz is going to be part of the European high-culture consensus.’ That challenged a lot of fundamental ideals—nationalist ideals, even racial ideals.”

Lewis noted that Schlippenbach, concerned that the term “free improvisation” “might be used to distance him from the jazz tradition,” was firm about describing his music as “free jazz.” “At this point you have to say that he is part of the jazz tradition,” Lewis said. “He likes to make the piano ring, like Fred Anderson made the saxophone ring. There are these sharp, intense gestures, and he gets into this trance of ecstasy, which he then cuts back on, so there’s an awareness going on at the same time.”

That awareness was evident at last November, at a lecture-performance at a “Jazz and Social Relevance” conference sponsored by the University of Heidelberg’s American Studies Department, where Schlippenbach, 74, followed a brief recital with a pithy discourse—in English—that traced, as he stated, “the emergence of free jazz in Europe” and GUO’s origins. Later, he sat with DownBeat for a conversation.

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DB: What’s your personal history with Monk’s music?

AVS: I have been busy with Monk, strange enough, almost from my beginning with jazz. For one year at the end of the ‘50s, there was a jazz school connected with the Cologne Musikhochschule, where I had a very nice piano teacher—the only jazz piano teacher I ever had—named Francis Coppieters, a Belgian from the radio band. He introduced me to the Monk piece called “Work,” which I rehearsed and played. I found it quite interesting and very different from the other jazz with all the well-known cliches. So I tried to find a way to learn Monk’s other pieces, and over the years they came together.

All 70 of his tunes are gems, each with its own strong character; this is what I appreciate most about him. But I don’t think there is much of a link between Monk’s music and my style of playing. When I improvise, I am trying to find a way to keep with the theme, not just do brilliant choruses on the changes like most of the piano players do, but to get the IDEA of the piece.

DB: Through what threads in your consciousness did you relate to Monk’s music?

AVS: There was a guy in my boarding school who could play the boogie-woogie, which impressed me, and I tried to imitate him. I learned the blues with this. Through the years, every night from 12 to 1 a.m., I listened to the Voice of America Jazz Hour with Willis Conover, which was very important—it gave me good information about new things. All my money went to buy records, which I transcribed and copied, trying to play bebop and traditional jazz. I heard Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and it changed my life. Oscar made an impression on me—one of the greatest piano players in the history of jazz, with fantastic technique and swinging and can play blues and everything… Horace Silver was a great influence as well. I copied all his records. I wouldn’t say he has any cliche. He has his own very strong style, which is true of all the great jazz musicians. Nowadays in school, they learn from books how the blues scale works, and then they can do anything with it. This makes things flat, I would say.

Then at the beginning of the ‘60s, when all these changes happened, we heard Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, just to mention those two. We were fascinated with this new language, this new sound. We quickly adapted that influence and developed it, writing little tunes that we used as a boost to do something somehow more free. At the same time, I was a student of composition in Cologne, where I was in contact with contemporary composers like Bernd Alois Zimmermann, worked with them, and got some experience in what’s called “serious contemporary music.” Zimmermann had places for improvisers and jazz players in his later compositions, which I performed with the Manfred Schoof Quintet. In 1967 and 1968, Penderecki and Luigi Nono tried to get in contact after they heard Globe Unity Orchestra.

DB: I gather around 1965 you played a gig at the Blue Note in Paris with Gunter Hampel opposite Kenny Clarke, after which you’d attend a jam session that Don Cherry was doing at Le Chat Qui Peche.

AVS: Yeah, it was fantastic. We always could hear their last set, because we were quite interested about the way Don Cherry led the band with his horn—he’d raise it, suddenly there was a new motive, a new theme that the band immediately followed. This was quite impressive for me. I can relate to this the way we play today, especially with Rudi Mahall, a fantastic bass clarinet player, who I play with both in duo and with a rhythm section. We have these Monk tunes and Eric Dolphy stuff, and he’ll change, then I’ll follow, as though we’re not only playing one piece, but can surprise ourselves as different things come up.

DB: You recorded Dolphy’s songs solo on Twelve Tone Tales. He seems to be as important to you as Monk.

AVS: Yes. His tunes went more in the new, freer direction than Monk’s music. I heard him with Mingus in the ‘60s, and I heard him perform with Coltrane in Stuttgart, and also on radio recordings. I listened to his records—especially Out To Lunch was one that gave me an enormous idea where jazz can go. Monk was a pianist, so it’s piano music. Dolphy was not a piano player, but a melody-maker, and I was curious how to play his pieces—some of which are literally extended bebop—on the piano. Of course, you have to see what you can do with the other hand, so it’s not just the melody.

DB: Does your thematic orientation when interpreting Monk and Dolphy remain in the completely improvised context of your trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lovens?

AVS: When I play with Parker and Lovens, this is completely different. No themes at all. It’s what we call improvising without any prior agreement. We never speak about what the program is, so we don’t have pieces. We have all our certain material. Motifs. Evan has his scales. I have my very full chords which are built up for the right hand and for the left hand in a convenient way for the piano. I have, of course, also other things to do in my improvisational material. Paul has developed his own way of drumming through all these years, and since we’ve worked together continuously, we have developed our own style, which is I think quite unique. It’s not so much adapted from any American jazz. Nothing against the bass, it has its function, but I do like groups without bass, so I can do more things with my left hand and feel freer. Of course, I heard Cecil Taylor’s trio with Sunny Murray and Jimmy Lyons at the Montmartre. I also liked the old Benny Goodman Trio with Gene Krupa.

DB: How is consensus reached on the first gesture of a performance? The first sound that generates everything else?

AVS: Usually I start with some motif, but it can come from Evan or from Lovens. Of course, we know each other, and when they start, I can immediately jump in, or pick up something, and go on. But the way we do that is not predictable. It comes out of the moment.

DB: Do you listen back to the performances? Do you analyze them after the fact? Or do you just let them go?

AVS: I more let them go. If the thing is done, it’s done, and I go to the next thing.

DB: So you don’t listen to yourself to find, say, patterns that might exist.

AVS: Not so much. More by chance. Sometimes, by chance, I listen to things we recorded 40 years ago, which is quite interesting to listen to…

DB: What do you think of Schlippenbach forty years ago?

AVS: Forty years ago, he was more kind of an angry young man, I think. The music was quite fresh, quite new at that time. We were very optimistic, just go in and play as much as possible. We were very convinced of what we were doing.

DB: Can you speak about the interplay between your considerable technique and your compositional and improvisational interests?

AVS: I have developed improvisational material on 12-tone chords. Already when I started I’d been interested in this for many years, and it came out stronger and stronger. So I found things convenient for the piano that I practiced a lot to improvise with that material. I was working sometimes with Steve Lacy, who showed me chords where you can press two notes with the thumb or with other fingers, which means you can put six-tone chords in one hand and six-tone chords in the other, which together is 12. I practiced on a couple of chords and scales and material to improvise with, and did it in a specific jazz way. For me, the difference between jazz and classical music is mainly that jazz has a rough, forward driving force. That’s always what I was most interested in, and I tried to transfer this element to my improvisation. Through this mode of practice, I developed maybe a specific technique.

DB: I think the most obvious reference point is that Cecil Taylor was a jumping-off point for you. I’m wondering if he was or if he wasn’t.

AVS: He was, of course. I saw him first in the ‘60s and also as a solo pianist in Amsterdam, and I was really overwhelmed. It was something very new. It was just air from the other planet at this time. I followed him to Rotterdam to the next concert, and I was very impressed about his ability to play the piano with a new sound and a new approach even to the music. It was exactly at that time when we also found out about our own possibilities. But he is still for me maybe the most important piano player in what we call the new jazz.

DB: In the mid ‘80s, after Jimmy Lyons died, Taylor started to work a great deal with European improvisers. Can you describe the maturation of European new jazz during those years of consolidation? You yourself have stated that in Globe Unity Orchestra the concept became more refined, more intuitive.

AVS: Yes. This is something that happens in music, I think. In the beginning, when the thing was completely new, many musicians, even beginners, tried to jump the train, as they say, even if they are not so great on their instrument. There were no fixed rules, that you have to know this tune, or play on the harmony. They could feel like, “I can do anything.” Of course, this is a basic error, because you have to make music, and you have to find a way to make people understand the music is not just fooling around or anything and saying, “this is free” and “this is not free.” So there was some chaos in the beginning, but after a while the wheat separated from the chaff—it became evident who is really serious about playing. The language became clearer. Nowadays we know with whom we want to play, and what we want to do. Today I would say there has never been so much free jazz as now. In Berlin, there’s a third generation of younger musicians who are working on their stuff with great passion, exactly as we did. I can feel this new movement, because I am playing around all the time. The seed grows up.

My trio with Evan and Paul is a kind of nucleus of Globe Unity Orchestra. Since we are always improvising, the band has gone more and more in a direction that we call ‘complete improvisation.’ Sometimes there is a little idea to start with something on overtones, or something with single notes—but not more. There is no need to talk about it. You can hear it, and then it comes from itself.

DB: Was music in your family background?

AVS: There is nothing to say about that. My father played a nice accordion, and my mother played a little piano. But I grew up after the war, when there was nothing to be done about music…

DB: You had to survive.

AVS: Survive, yes. So I started with piano when I was about 10 years old, relatively late. Then I saw this guy with the boogie-woogie, and I listened to jazz, and I got amazed about jazz…

DB: Were you from an aristocratic family?

AVS: Yes. This is a very long story. I am not a specialist about the family history, but I know it goes back to the 9th century or something—very old roots. Everything is lost anyway, because the high nobility of Prussia was put down after the war to nothing, or even worse sometimes. I try to hide my real name as a musician. I say “von.” But I am “Graf.”

DB: Graf is Count.

AVS: Yes, I’m a Count. But I don’t use it. I leave it to Count Basie.

DB: What music do you like to listen to now?

AVS: I like to listen to the old bebop, to the real bebop, the original bebop. Some things in contemporary music. Some things of new players, but not so much. I am very busy with my own things.

DB: What’s the quality that grabs you?

AVS: I find in this something of a darker side of jazz. That music was very strict in the form, with real tension, very convincing and very strong.

DB: Do you feel there’s a darkness in your music?

AVS: I can be light and a little bit funny with that. But if I use the chords, there’s a certain darkness in it, yes.

DB: You like to play in a lot of different ways—within forms and also total improvisation. Are they separate files of activity, or interrelated?

AVS: I think my way of playing—a certain touch, certain material—comes through even if I play traditional forms. But it’s always ME that plays. I don’t say, “Now I play like Horace Silver” or “I play like Monk.” I play maybe a piece of him, but I do it in my way.

DB: Is it your opinion that you’ve developed your own language?

AVS: Yes, of course. We all start following some idea, try to imitate even great musicians from another generation. You learn from it. Now I’ve developed my own language in terms of my own improvisational stuff and material, and someone who knows my music and hears me could say, “This is Schlippenbach.”

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