George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band: Theatre (ECM 1265)

George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band

Palle Mikkelborg trumpet, fluegelhorn
Peter Gordon French horn
Julian Priester trombone
David Taylor bass trombone
Howard Johnson tuba, bass clarinet, saxophone
Charlie Mariano saxophones, flute
Dino Saluzzi bandoneón
George Gruntz keyboards
Mark Egan bass
Bob Moses drums
Sheila Jordan vocal
Recorded July 1983 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“We are contrary as the weather.”

The Swiss jazz musician, composer, and arranger George Gruntz is known for thinking big. Having served as the JazzFest Berlin artistic director from 1972 to 1994, he is clearly comfortable in juggling hefty amounts of musical information. This is reflected also in his music, which has dealt with a number of formats over the years, ranging from intimate piano works to expansive suites on political and cultural themes. Theatre, his only album for ECM, sits somewhere in the middle. The result is a work that never quite knows where it’s going. One look at the roster tells you that, at the very least, this is a remarkable assembly of musicians. On that note, some of the better moments can be found breathing in the bandoneón of Dino Saluzzi, who also composed the opening “El Chancho.” Saluzzi’s gentle persuasion leaves the most ripples in this pool, and deepens the proceedings with ancestral yearnings. Trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg also brings glory to the table, while bassist Mark Egan (of onetime Pat Metheny Group renown) adds a sinewy backbone. The growling tuba and brass menagerie of “In The Tradition Of Switzerland” swells like some boppish nightmare turned inside out, so that its darkness becomes its skin and its light remains hidden except through performance. Freer abstractions abound, coalescing into the album’s most powerful: a solo from saxophonist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky. A cathartic highlight, and all the more so for being contrasted by the wooden flutes that follow. With the introduction of sputtering words, we encounter touches of Michael Mantler alongside allusions to Duke Ellington and Ornette Coleman. Sheila Jordan brings her smooth and sultry lines to bear on “No One Can Explain It,” carrying on the torch through “The Holy Grail Of Jazz And Joy.” Jordan adds much-needed spunk to an album that has by this point begun to lose some of its drive, especially in this final track, a 25-minute paean to the art that bubbles with big band personality and ends with a slow fling into the night, a popped champagne cork, a bid and farewell.

From the bizarre cover photograph, one would think this was a live album of some importance. What we get, however, is a relatively intimate and respectable studio session. There’s no need to drop everything and buy this, and may have more value to the ECM completist than the workaday listener. Will move some more than others.

<< Alfred Harth: This Earth! (ECM 1264)
>> Rainer Brüninghaus: Continuum (ECM 1266)

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