Peter Rühmkorf: Jazz & Lyrik.

JL cover

Peter Rühmkorf
Jazz & Lyrik.

Peter Rühmkorf voice
Michael Naura
Wolfgang Schlüter vibraphone
Klaus Thunemann bassoon
Eberhard Weber bass, violoncello
Christian Willisohn piano
Titus Vollmer guitar
Leszek Zadlo saxophone, flute
Christian Kappe flugelhorn, trumpet
Ansgar Elsner saxophone
Burkhard Jasper piano
Alexander Morsey bass
Klaus Gunnemann drums
Dietmar Bonnen piano
Andreas Schilling bass
Mastering: Eberhard Schnellen and ECM Records
Studio: ES-Dur, Hamburg
Produced by Hoffmann und Campe in collaboration with ECM Records
Release date: November 17, 2009

Jazz & Lyrik names a genre that might never have existed as such without Peter Rühmkorf (1929-2008). Together with pianist Michael Naura, vibraphonist Wolfgang Schlüter, and a host of other talents, the lauded German poet and essayist brought a consistent physical quality to his spoken artistry. It’s a characteristic he quite consciously cultivated: “I’m also a bit like an instrument,” he said in 1985. “My poems are fixed, like the keys on a piano. Only I must strike with the voice. The poem I read is my instrument. I just have to intone it.” While the form of jazz poetry presented in this 3-disc treasure trove, an archive coproduced by Hoffmann und Campe in collaboration with ECM Records and with support from the Arno Schmidt Foundation, reached its peak in the 1960s, the recordings documented here span from 1976 to 2006. The former year was a watershed one, when Rühmkorf recorded Kein Apolloprogramm für Lyrik for ECM. On that album, from which eight tracks are included, he joined forces with Naura, Schlüter, and bassist Eberhard Weber, yielding such phenomenally descriptive morsels as “Tagebuch” and “Zirkus.”

Eight further tracks are also included to represent the 1978 follow-up album, Phönix Voran. Leszek Zadlo (saxophone and flute) replaces Weber, making for a folk-tinged change of scenery and adding delight to such tracks as “Ich butter meinen Toast von beiden Seiten” and “Allein Ist Nicht Genug.”

Yet this album’s most valuable rarities are in its live recordings—delightful not only for their historical value, but also for the insight they provide into Rühmkorf’s effect on an audience. The standout in this regard is “Variation auf »Abendlied« von Matthias Claudius,” from an 18 September 1994 performance. As Rühmkorf riffs on the lyrics of Germany’s most beloved lullaby, he brings an improvisatory quality to the reading, so much so that the applause that follow it feel like those given after a jazz soloist passes the torch. The arrangement by Naura and Schlüter is as heartwarming as it is sincere (it’s also among the more pristinely recorded of the live selections).

This set also traces the afterlife of Phönix Voran as it played out in radio broadcasts from 1987, 2001, and 2005. These unlock secrets in that album’s highlights (especially “Komm raus!”) and others that never made it to the studio (“Einen zweiten Weg ums Gehirn rum”). The addition of guitarist Titus Vollmer in the middle performance is magical, as is the effect of hearing Rühmkorf’s voice recite the title poem on three separate occasions over a period of nearly as many decades.

Other noteworthy selections include the self-styled studio composition “Elbterrassen,” in which Rühmkorf beats over a recording of “C Jam Blues” from the Johnny Griffin album At Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall, Hamburg 1975; “Früher, als wir die großen Ströme noch …,” a 2005 performance featuring a rhythm and horn section, along with the less tangible instrument of Rühmkorf’s sly humor; and “Betr. Rundfrage Grundfrage,” a 2006 interpretation of a 1998 poem whose domesticity meshes beautifully with the intimate microscopy of pianist Dietmar Bonnen and bassist Andreas Schilling.

Rühmkorf had a wonderful way of speaking, at once in rhythm with the music (if not the other way around) and wandering its own path freely alongside it. What a significant achievement to have it so lovingly preserved, especially in such a mosaiced fashion. As the title of “Bleib erschütterbar und widersteh” reminds us: stay shattered and resist glory.

Speaking for Apollo: Peter Rühmkorf on ECM


Peter Rühmkorf (1929-2008) was among the most influential postwar writers of his native Germany, winning every major literary prize for his prolific output of essays, poetry, plays, and prose. Yet despite having given spoken performances on stage with pianist Michael Naura and vibraphonist Wolfgang Schlüter for over three decades, his only appearances on record in such a configuration were captured via two rare ECM “SP” albums from the late seventies. I was beyond fortunate to be offered these two albums off the shelves while visiting label headquarters for the first time in Munich, and the die-hard fan will want to seek them out. Going beyond mere sound structure or program music, Rühmkorf was rather looking for something harmonious between the spheres of language and sound production, and on these long-out-of-printers I think got rather close to that ideal.


Kein Apolloprogramm Für Lyrik (ECM 2305 801 SP)

Peter Rühmkorf voice
Michael Naura piano
Wolfgang Schlüter vibraphone, marimba
Eberhard Weber bass, cello
Recorded August 1976, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The title of this first long out-of-print relic translates to “No Apollo Program for Poetry,” and indicates Rühmkorf’s interest in going beyond mere sound structure or program music. Rather, he was looking for something harmonious between the spheres of language and sound production, and here I think he was approaching that ideal. Rühmkorf further professes a downright biological need for poetry and skirts, in his darkly effervescent way, the line between emancipation and integration.

As with most of ECM’s speech acts, this one will be of little poetic use to those who don’t understand German. It should, however, be of immense value to the label’s fans for its musicianship. In addition to a rare early appearance by bassist Eberhard Weber (who also plays cello on one track), one is treated to some fine playing from Naura and Schlüter. Aside from two short tracks of Rühmkorf alone, the album is brimming with attractive makings of music. The trio activity of “Tagebuch” (Diary) establishes a grand, theatrical sort of precision with minimal means. Weber is robust and elastic as ever, sometimes climbing his way into the center and at others laying down club jazz atmospheres with Naura at the keys and playing us out on a bed of velvet.

For the most part, the playing is so illustrative that translations are hardly needed. “Hochseil” (Tightrope), for instance, balances Rühmkorf on a lone marimba that also carves helixes of reverberant post-production, while Weber’s percussiveness in “Zirkus” (Circus) builds like the tension of a trapeze act. And, whether steeped in the balladry of “Meine Stelle Am Himmel” (My Point In The Sky) or gilded by the flanged cello of “Elegie,” the poet rides an arpeggio of new horizons, only to culminate in the deeper finality of “Komm Raus!” (Come Out!).


Phönix Voran (ECM 2305 802 SP)

Peter Rühmkorf voice
Michael Naura piano
Leszek Zadlo saxophone, flute
Wolfgang Schlüter vibraphone
Recorded March 1978, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Thomas Stöwsand

Whereas on the previous album Rühmkorf stressed the importance of pathos with an air of resigned unrest, on Phönix Voran (Phoenix Preview) he chews the fat of inner strength in closer quarters. Adding to that claustrophobia—even as he installs a window view—is Polish musician Leszek Zadlo, who replaces Weber’s bass with saxophones and flute throughout, and to astonishingly cinematic effect.

Rühmkorf’s ever-practical enunciation cracks open the piano and vibes like an egg, thereby releasing the soft yolk of Zadlo’s flute in a cradle of light and shadow. This combination, a sparkling one, works again on the freely improvised “Selbstportrait” (Self-portrait), which inhabits its own unsettled text with an increasingly kaleidoscopic gravidity. The flute lastly appears as Rühmkorf’s only partner in the aesthetically beat poetry-inflected “Allein Ist Nicht Genug” (Alone Is Not Enough).

Elsewhere, the saxophone takes precedence of sound and space. The opening reed tones of “Auf Einen Alten Klang” (An Old Sound), pure and singing, find natural traction in the Naura/Schlüter nexus, then dance freely as Rühmkorf works his narrative labor into a material image. Zadlo and Naura share one duet in “Paradise Regained” for a vivid portrait of night. Yet the fullness of the project’s vision is best realized by the entire band. Highlights in this regard include the deliciously titled “Ich Butter Meinen Toast Von Beiden Seiten” (I Butter My Toast On Both Sides), a lovely track with the wherewithal to hold its prose like nourishment in the belly, and the sweeter onomatopoeia of “Impromptu.” And as finality lands again in the bustling farewell of “Tagelied,” we begin to realize that perhaps it is the voice that accompanies the music, not the other way around.

While it might not always seem so in the thick of things, in hindsight the connections between speech and instruments are to be found not in meanings but in shapes. Naura’s music, which comprises the backbone of both sets, already has such a solid narrative arc that Rühmkorf is an intuitive fit to manifest its dips and climbs. Gems, these are.