George Gruntz: Percussion Profiles (JAPO 60025)

Percussion Profiles Front

George Gruntz
Percussion Profiles

Jack DeJohnette drums, cymbals, gongs
Pierre Favre drums, cymbals, gongs
Fredy Studer drums, cymbals, gongs
Dom Um Romão percussion, gongs
David Friedman flat gongplay, vibes, marimba, crotales
George Gruntz gongs, keyboards, synthesizer, crotales
Recorded September 20, 1977 at Wally Heider Studios, Los Angeles
Engineer: Biff Dawes
Mixing: Georg Scheuermann and Manfred Eicher
Producer: Robert Paiste

Late Swiss composer, multi-instrumentalist, and artistic director George Gruntz (1932-2013) left behind a long and fruitful trail, one that intersected with ECM twice: once for the label proper as Theatre and before that for JAPO in the form of Percussion Profiles. The eminently influential Gruntz assembles here a veritable Who’s Who of the rhythmic circuit at the time of its recording (1977): namely, Jack DeJohnette, Pierre Favre, Fredy Studer, Dom Um Romão, David Friedman, and Gruntz in the architect’s chair on synths and keyboards. The project speaks less to Gruntz’s big band experiments than it does to his classical roots. Dedicated to Paiste brothers Robert (who also produces) and Toomas, the piece is a bona fide percussion concerto that approaches its performers as equal elements in a larger chemistry.

The piece is divided into six Movements, each illuminating a facet of the whole. Movement 1 introduces the pleasant blending of registers—from twinkles to full-throated calls—that defines the album’s broad trajectory. Like the sun on a cloudy day, its light shines variedly: sometimes in floods, sometimes in winks and flashes, but always with a clear conscience. There is a sensitivity of expression here that tells the stories of chamber music in the language of the Serengeti. Movements 2 through 4 bring out a veritable bouquet of fragrances: briny ocean (laced with intimations of birdsong and splashes of electronic marginalia), undercurrents of metal and oil, and resonant drones share a path toward the masterful “Movement 5.” This last opens in a vocal flower, which cups in its petals a sparkling array of notions and potions. The histrionic ways of this piece make it a beguiling standout, akin to Marion Brown’s Afternoon Of A Georgia Faun. Here is where the visuality of his medium is most apparent. If this record is a house, this movement enacts a thorough cleaning of its basement. Rusted tools and unused others share conversations of things past. Stuck between the water-damaged photographs and listless rodents are fortuitous becomings, blips and dots and dashes, sputtering pipes and creaking infrastructure. These are the feelings within, the memories of which “Movement 6” is a snare-inflected shadow, a spacy ride through keyboard textures and xylophoned exeunt.

Those who admire the work of Edgard Varèse will find much to sink their teeth into in Percussion Profiles, which begs repeated, unaccompanied listening, if only for its level of detail. A memorable rung on the JAPO ladder, and worth the climb to get there.

Percussion Profiles Back

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.

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