Friday, March 8, 2013

Germany's Die Enttäuschung ingeniously bridge jazz's past and future, again

Posted By on 03.08.13 at 02:00 PM

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There's something modest and homemade about the surface of the music made by the veteran German jazz quartet Die Enttäuschung. All four members of the Berlin band are fantastic musicians, and there's a nonchalant virtuosity at work when they play, as heard on their brand-new album Vier Halbe (Intakt), but its knotty post-bop feels small and intimate even at his most raucous and woolly. As usual, the cover art for the new album features a witty collage—kind of an overstuffed Joseph Cornell box—with tiny images of the group. These guys are not egoists, a fact that can be felt most profoundly in the actual music.

Trumpeter Axel Dörner and bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall have never sounded better, anticipating, complementing, and prodding what the other does at all times, while the rhythm section of bassist Jan Roder and drummer Uli Jennessen is pliant, bouncy, and sleek, expertly supporting the frontline action. Various members of the group composed all 21 of the concise, pithy tunes here—although Jennessen's "Jitterbug Five" is little more than Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" played in 5/8—and the spirit harkens back to the heyday of bebop, even though the sour harmonies, loosey-goosey horn lines, and extended techniques (such as Dörner's trademark car-engine-turning-over sputter) are thoroughly contemporary. Mahall's wonderfully jagged opener "Die Übergebundenen," for example, has the halting rhythmic feel of Monk's "Evidence," and the solos he and the trumpeter deliver (with the former on baritone saxophone) could feel a bit retro if it weren't for the looseness of the theme statement. Dörner's "Verzält," on the other hand, is a cogent series of episodes—terse solo statements, mutlilinear improvisation, long tones, stop-start fragments—but it feels just as natural and alive as the first piece.

What makes this band so special is how it perfectly reconciles its deep rooting in jazz history—the members have masterfully internalized that language—and free jazz impulses (this is the band, after all, that played behind the brilliant pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach on his Monk's Casino project, where every extant Thelonious Monk composition was recorded for one three-disc collection). Even as they warp bebop tropes, it never feels like a postmodern tweak a la Mostly Other People Do the Killing. The group instead demonstrates that there's no good reason jazz's past can't happily and innovatively coexist with its present. These musicians clearly enjoy writing catchy little melodies and tart harmonies in an old-school vein, but the group has no interest in merely aping the past, so its arrangements and improvisations jump all around, from era to era, and utilize foreign vocabularies at will. These various clashes create a wonderful tension that gives the music its greatest charge. Yet at the same time, the playing is so strong and original, that focusing on smaller components—a solo here, a terse unison passage there—is equally rewarding. It's a holistic package where everything has its purpose, and as the band approaches its third decade together, the quartet only seem to be getting better and more inspired. With the possible exception of the Scandinavian quintet Atomic, I don't know if there's a better band truly representing the fundamental aesthetics of jazz—in any case, this might be the best record I've heard this year. Below you can check out a typically great track, "Eine Halbe."

Today's playlist:

Ingebjør Sørbøen, Fuggel'n (Heilo)
Thom Gossage Other Voices, In Other Words (Songlines)
Hank Mobley, Another Workout (Blue Note)
Jonah Parzen-Johnson, Michiana (Primary)
Luis Lopes, Lisbon Berlin Trio (Clean Feed)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.

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