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Now – Jazz and Renaissance Improvisations
Axel Wolf (lute and theorbo)
Hugo Siegmeth (soprano and tenor saxophones, bass-clarinet).
rec. 2015-17, Bayischer Rundfunk, Munich
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 1897 [72:56]

Axel Wolf is an internationally recognized lutenist of considerable distinction. His well-received CDs include a recording of music by Michelagnelo Galilei, Il primo libro d’intavolatura di liuto (Oehms Classics, 2018), as well as music by Bach, Hasse, Weiss and Alessandro Piccinini. He has performed regularly with ensembles such as the Freiburger Barockorchster and The English Concert. On the other hand, the reputation of reed player Hugo Siegmeth has, very largely, been established in the world of contemporary jazz. My own recommendation amongst his recordings would be Red Onions: Celebrating Sidney Bechet (Act, 2006), a brilliant (post-)modern re-reading of Sidney Bechet and his repertoire, which never imitates that great soprano saxophonist but throws an unexpected (and sometimes startling) light on the work of the earlier musician. On the current CD Wolf and Siegmeth unite to play music which is wholly improvised, without the use of any previously notated compositions. The duo made an earlier recording, Flow: Jazz & Renaissance – From Italy to Brazil (Oehms Classics, OC 1826) released in 2015, on which their improvisations were based on very diverse musical materials by, amongst others, Dowland (‘Flow my tears’), Jobim (‘The Girl from Ipanema’), Charlie Parker (‘Ornithology’), Monteverdi (‘Lamento d’Ariana’), Thelonious Monk (‘Round Midnight’) and Gershwin (‘Summertime’).

The booklet essay in their new CD – in both German and English – by Roland Spiegel of Bayerische Rundfunk (Munich) tells the tale of how, when the two musicians appeared together in a Munich radio studio, after the release of Flow, they were persuaded to experiment with entirely free improvisation. The results were, apparently, immediately interesting and impressive, especially a piece created, after some shorter pieces, in response to the request to “let the sounds run, maybe in a blues-like mood, which can even be held for a good ten minutes”. The result was a piece 12 minutes long named, after its creation, ‘Ariadne’s Blues-Faden’ (‘Ariadne’s Blues-Thread’). That improvisation is preserved as the final track on the album. Other pieces were created later – the two musicians being required “to respond spontaneously to stimuli of the most different kinds” (all apparently provided by Spiegel). Some of these stimuli were lines from poems (the title of tracks one and four come from poems by ee cummings, that of track twelve (which Spiegel translates as ‘a stray smile flutters by’) is quoted from a poem by Christian Morgenstern. To produce track 9 (‘Sound standing on a cliff’) the two musicians were given the guidance “prolonged saxophone notes played on the edge of a cliff, with it the striding accompaniment by the string instrument”. For some other pieces they were given a fixed sequence of chords – though not, presumably, a set rhythm or tempo – to work with.

Not one of these 14 tracks is without interest though, in the nature of the exercise, it is inevitable that some work better than others. On ‘Stehender Klang an einer Klippe’, for example, one has to wait quite a while for any real musical dialogue to develop and for anything very absorbing to happen. Elsewhere, lute and saxophone interweave and respond to one another from the very beginning, as on ‘Like Soft Dark Birds’, with strikingly poetic results. ‘For One Another’, in which Axel Wolf leads off (alone) with some baroque-style material, before Hugo Siegmeth takes over (alone), so that the piece begins with solo lute followed by unaccompanied tenor saxophone, before Wolf and Siegmeth combine in an attractive example of how their collaboration works and how quick each is to respond to what the other does. I would encourage anyone who thinks that free improvisation necessarily produces noisy and chaotic music to listen to, say, ‘For One Another’ and ‘Ariadnes Blues-Faden’ (where the title’s allusion to the thread by which Ariadne found her way out of Minotaur’s Cretan labyrinth, suggests the manner in which recurrent echoings of blues phrasing serve as the ‘thread’ by which the partnership finds its way through the complex (yet spontaneous) structure which it erects in the course of its improvisation. I feel sure that many of those suspicious of ‘free improvisation’ will finds themselves very pleasantly surprised by tracks such as these.

It should be stressed that what is going on here is not remotely akin to the dreaded phenomenon of crossover, in which artists experienced in one kind of music attempt to perform music of a different kind. What we have here is a meeting of two intelligent and technically accomplished musicians who have honed their skills in two different musical traditions, but who both recognize some shared elements in those two traditions and have the tolerance necessary to respect one another’s backgrounds and to build something distinctive out of both what they share and their differences.

This is an album I have found myself playing repeatedly since I received it, hearing fascinating new details every time I listen to it.

Glyn Pursglove

1. A Quiver of Superb Arrows [4:26]
2. 4 x 3, Prestissimo [4:16]
3. Quarten, die nicht warten [3:39]
4. Like Soft Dark Birds [5:53]
5. Improvviso Elisabeth [3:18]
6. Totally Watching TV [4:48]
7. Schreddermaschine [5:22]
8. For One Another [6:46]
9. Stehender Klang an einer Klippe [5:39]
10. Ammersee nach Traxler [4:02]
11. Ich bin dīn [6:17]
12. Ein Lächeln irrt verflogen [O1:38]
13. Von Fall zu Fall [4:47]
14. Ariadnes Blues-Faden [11:59]

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