Michael Naura/Wolfgang Schlüter: Country Children (ECM 2305 803 SP)

Michael Naura
Wolfgang Schlüter
Country Children

Michael Naura piano
Wolfgang Schlüter vibraharp, marimba
Recorded June 1977 at Radio Bremen
Engineer: Dietram Köster
Produced by Peter Schulze

Oftentimes, when pouring through the back catalogue of any label’s out-of-print releases, one stumbles on a few clunkers before arriving at any forgotten monuments. In my listening experiences thus far, ECM has flipped this dynamic considerably, offering a wealth of musical history to explore and appreciate. Among the ruins, however, is this humble little project, lost to the age of the label’s brief SP imprint, which lasted all of three albums. Country Children brings together pianist Michael Naura, whose music graces most of this set, and Wolfgang Schlüter. Originally trained as a drummer before a knee injury led him to mallet instruments, Schlüter cites Lionel Hampton (who he heard live in Berlin in 1952) and Milt Jackson as early influences. After a stint with the Michael Naura Quintet, which dissolved due to Naura’s illness, he played with the NDR Bigband for three decades. Since then, he has focused on teaching and remains one of Germany’s most formative vibraphonists.

“Ballade für eine Silberhochzeit” is a lush opener, almost the shadow of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Over a beautiful two-chord ostinato, vibes dance exuberantly in a tightly restricted space, but with resplendent melodic freedom. “Schlafen” is a heavily improvised stem with the occasional blossom of composed material. Whereas its heavily convoluted beginnings might elsewhere seem a turgid dream from which one awakens into consonant resolution, here they imply the opposite: an opening of eyes within in sleep’s promised dream. “Take Us Down the River” is more exuberant, much in the vein of Keith Jarrett in the throes of a re-imagined standard. “Argentina” is alive with urban energy, a subdued elegy for remembered villages and mountains. The piano here is paired with a sprightly marimba, making for a drier and more evocative sound.

A flip of the record to Side B brings us to one of the most heartfelt renditions of Krzysztof Komeda’s theme from “Rosemary’s Baby” you are ever likely to hear. This is followed by the title track, which feels steeped in an unnamed nostalgia. “Sad Queen” is another stunner, and my favorite among the album’s originals. “Variation auf »Abendlied«” is dedicated to Peter Rühmkorf, the highly influential German writer whose voice appears alongside Naura and Schlüter in the first two ECM SP titles. It is another lovely offering, consolatory in its gentle persuasion, a track of subtle boisterousness filled with an abiding energy. The final track, “Call,” ends the album on a bittersweet note.

These musicians are like two halves of the same instrument. Their collaborations are beautifully conceived and executed, and make for a fitting complement to such likeminded pairings as Chick Corea and Gary Burton. It’s a wonder this album has yet to be reissued. I would think that, especially with the nod to Komeda, it would fit snugly alongside François Couturier’s Nostalghia and Tomasz Stanko’s Litania. This is a gorgeous and wide-ranging album, one equally fit as the background to other activities or for relaxed deep listening. An unsung gem, and easily one of my top picks currently vying for freedom from the ECM vault.

Michael Naura: Vanessa (ECM 1053)

ECM 1053

Michael Naura

Michael Naura piano
Wolfgang Schlüter vibraphone, marimba, percussion
Eberhard Weber bass
Joe Nay drums
Klaus Thunemann bassoon
Recorded September 1974 at Windrose Studios, Hamburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Michael Naura

Lithuanian-born Michael Naura is a German pianist, editor, and journalist. Capitalizing on a range of influences, from George Shearing to Horace Silver, his successful self-titled quintet LP of 1963 made him a household name in hard bop. If the benefit concerts arranged after his being diagnosed with polyserositis the following year are any indication, his brief absence caught many in its ripples. Central to Naura’s cadre in his formative years as recording artist was vibraphonist Wolfgang Schlüter, whose presence is keenly felt throughout Vanessa, his first and only album for ECM proper (he did release another, Country Children, as part of the label’s short-lived SP series). Even though last year saw Naura’s efforts recognized with a WDR Jazz Prize lifetime achievement award, this album remains etched in vinyl.

Naura’s set of six opens its eyes in the electric piano and marimba strains of “Salvatore.” The unmistakable electrobass of Eberhard Weber provides just enough ground for Klaus Thunemann’s stellar bassoon improvisations. This gorgeous opener sounds more like John Zorn’s Electric Masada on sleeping pills than anything else. The energy peters out over time and seems to trip on its own intentions, opening up a subtle improvisatory space in the process. From these murky depths arises the track’s thematic beginnings, passionately recapitulated with some superbly realized drumming from Joe Nay, amid a flanged wash of familiarity. “Hills” bustles like lunch hour in Burtonville, though it’s Weber’s nimble fingers that make it the album’s highlight. The next tune lumbers playfully like its titular “Baboon,” all the while emoting an intrinsic self-assurance. Thunemann adopts a vocal quality that is anything but primitive in a three-minute aside that’s sure to bring a smile to your prehensile lips. The title cut reaffirms Schlüter’s reign, billowing through the night like a curtain at an open window, where once wavered the silhouette of a love no longer here, and at which now stands the one left behind. Moments of synchronicity hint at a fleeting union shared under cover of neon and subterranean steam. The serrated contours of “Listen To Me” contrast alluringly with its straight-edged neighbors. Vibes thread the whole, culminating in a sustain-pedaled echo. Ultimately, the bassoon abstractions and soloing of the elegant “Black Pigeon” prove Thunemann to be the star performer of an altogether commendable group of musicians.

A rare video of the group from 1974:

The only downside to the album is its sometimes weak recording mix. One can almost feel the marimba solo in “Salvatore,” for example, being tweaked into the foreground (compare this with the more equitably balanced “Listen To Me”). Should a reissue ever be in the works, as I hope it will be, a remastering will also be in order. Nonetheless, a keeper if you can track down one of these hot pink, fishnet sleeves.

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