Saturday, April 27, 2013

Günter Baby Sommer's Intensities

Ulrich Gumpert / Günter Baby Sommer

Jesper Lødval / Günter Baby Sommer
Jesper Lødval / Günter Baby Sommer

Günter Baby Sommer / Savina Yannatou / Florian Floridis / Evgenios Voulgaris / Spilios Kastanis
Songs for Kommeno

It could be argued that to play free jazz well one must have – perhaps more than anything else – an intensity of focus, and that if one has that it can be applied to playing anything. In that respect, it’s not the freedom that makes (some) free jazz so exciting but the focus, so free, or jazz, may not even be what we’re concerned with when we talk about such masters of the form as Günter Baby Sommer.

As is the case with others who have successfully worked the supposed dichotomy between song and improvisation (not to mention the trichotomies and quadrichotomies) – members of the AACM and the ICP, for example – Sommer’s playing is not in the what but in the how, which allows him to play standards and dance syncopations without irony or revisionism and without not being himself. And that is what makes a record like Paloma an absolute joy.

Paloma finds Sommer paired with pianist Ulrich Gumpert for their second record of duets (following Das donnernde Leben from 2009). The two have also played together in Zentralquartett (with Conrad Bauer and Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky) and other configurations over four decades. They are intuitive enough that it almost doesn’t matter what they play because it’ll be played with commitment. While most of the songs are original, they approach marching songs and hymns, hinting at Monk and Guraldi, solidly playing themes that in less certain hands could come off as corny. This in a sense is a challenge to the listener as well. The whole set builds toward the title track, an achingly familiar Spanish tune which they play with ease and deliberation. Firmly grounded in their own technique, they challenge the listener to accept simplicity and sing-song melodies. Giving them the benefit of the doubt will only lead to rewards.

That intensity of focus is what raises a sax/drum improv duo like Sommer’s self-titled pairing with Jesper Lødval (some 25 years Baby’s junior) above the bar. The post-Trane flurries which might be expected are present, but there are many discoveries going on here. A jaw harp / flute duet starts is initially amusing but quickly settles into a sort of trance. A piece entitled “Flight of the Flutes” seems filled with slide whistles and cowbells. And jazz classicism is given a nod with a sweet and slow ballad given the title “Billy Strayhorn.” There may not be much of new ground covered, but – again – the spirit is what sells it.

All of this in a sense (and at the risk of burying the lead) is just stage setting for Songs for Kommeno, which surely stands as one of Sommer’s finest achievements. The drummer assembled a quintet with four Greek musicians for this set of songs dedicated to the people of the Greek village of Kommeno and to the 317 people who died there under German occupation during World War II.

The disc comes with a 150-page book (in Greek, German and English) including a letter from the mayor of the village, an interview with Sommer and lengthy articles on the tragic history. Sommer recounts being invited to play a festival in the town and, upon learning the story, deciding he had to “take on this challenge.” He played the festival again the following year, all the while meeting officials and locals and absorbing the feel and background of the place.

The band he eventually put together to play for the project was an extension of his longstanding quartet with saxophonist Floros Floridis and bassist Spilios Kastanis. Added to that core is the dramatic vocalist Savina Yannatou (who has recorded for ECM and did a remarkable disc of duets with bassist Barry Guy on his Maya label) and Evgenios Voulgaris on tamburica and oud. The eight tracks are beautifully mournful, centered around Sommer’s 18-minute “Marias Miroloi,” which layers multiple melody lines over a marching drum cadence and folds in ghostlike speaking voices and frenetic passages of free jazz.

Sommer wrote five of the eight pieces, with two more from Voulgaris and one from Floridis. Voulgaris’s “Tears” opens the set with a plaintive saxophone melody dramatically underscored by a sort of rolling drone. His “Lullaby” maintains a somber spirit while providing an innocent respite, with Yannatou’s childlike interjections and a single bell giving a moment of calm. It’s followed by Sommer’s “Children Song,” with a repeated wordless couplet showcasing the precision of Yannatou’s voice. Floridis’s “Lost Ring” opens with a cinematic percussion solo before introducing another of the album’s memorable, quiet dirges, this time coupled on bass and soprano sax. The album ends on an upbeat note, with Sommer’s midtempo and fairly bopping “Kommeno Today.” The tune provides a hopeful resolution, but saying so shouldn’t imply that the album is so dire. It’s a beautiful piece of work, showing again the great products of Sommer’s intense focus.

- Kurt Gottschalk