Memories Of Mr.23 (The Alfred Harth Chronicles)


2009 is a fundamental moment in Alfred Harth’s life, in that he celebrates both the 60th birthday (on September 28th) and a 40-year career’s “jubilee”. We already talked about Just Music, one of the first improvisation ensembles recorded on ECM, whose activities were tragically under-documented to date. Luckily, Harth is retrieving additional material from the archives, these three records constituting as a good introduction as any to the collective’s stimulating methods. All of this great stuff is now available from the instigator himself through the Laubhuette imprint, and it goes without saying that you’d better start to be more aware of the roots of instrumental ad-libbing as opposed to having some “prophet of silence” dry your wallet with a hour of coughs, creaks and outside motorbikes surrounding two single “pings” and a “whirr”.


Extraordinarily good-sounding, given that the recordings occurred in March 1970, the tracks contained by this disc – strangely enough – do not feature Harth but present a selection of improvisations by two dissimilar trios. In the first, Michael Sell (trumpet), Franz Volhard (bass) and Thomas Cremer (drums) show that brief disquisitions can yield excellent results. Sell is obviously a protagonist, his phrasing voluble without preponderance, a constant melodic resourcefulness at the basis of an invigorating cross of swiftness and concomitance in admirable interaction with the “fractured rhythm” section. If this piece has a defect, that should be its shortness. We’re soon rewarded by a superb “clean” set comprising again Volhard (this time on cello), Johannes Krämer (acoustic guitar) and Peter Stock (bass). This lengthier series is the ideal evidence of the sensitiveness-informed technical eminence of the musicians, who interact alternating exhilaration and open-mindedness during exchanges that range from sheer ebullience to classically-scented, chamber-like reflective interpretations of self-determination. Even within the same trio, the inherent subdivisions (practically, duos in three different combinations) reveal an “adult” approach to mutual give-and-take informed by a taste for first-rate tones which stamps this collection with a “not-to-be-missed” seal.


Just listening to the radiophonic excerpt which opens the CD, recorded at Hessischer Rundfunk in 1968 and featuring snippets of interview (in German) with a 18-year old Harth – who sounds like a well-trained host in answering the real host’s questions – is enough to make one instantly curious. Yet it is once again the incredible maturity of the music presented, intelligently sequenced in the subsequent tracks, which must be taken into account to establish the absolute importance of these archival materials. These pieces – fantastic how the typical background hum contributes to the fascination during the playback – appear as a cross-pollination of atonal thematic jazz and instant-reaction heterodoxy – without excess of transcendental euphoria – in perennial recusant enlightenment. The chief initiator, on tenor sax, is flanked by Dieter Herrman on trombone, besides the usual suspects Krämer (guitar), Volhard (cello), Stock (bass) and Cremer, here puzzlingly credited with “inflating drums” (STOP PRESS: the just-received explanation reads “Cremer inflated his snare and toms with the help of a hose by blowing air with his mouth that changed the pitch of the drums while beating them“). While the dialogues between the not-yet-Mr.23 with, respectively, Cremer and Herrman describe a sharp journeying around the possibilities of two-part counterpoint without devastating apogees or reprehensible utilizations of formulas, the cream lies within three marvellous expressions by the Harth/Nicole Van Den Plas duo, correspondingly titled “Call & Suspense”, “Durus” and “Reverserenity”, the latter characterized, as per the title’s hint, by sonorities based on reverse-tape techniques utilized with extreme soberness. The saxophonist – who in this case plays bass clarinet, violin, harmonica and other objects – and his (at that time) life partner, also vocalizing in semi-ritual fashion, share a noticeable confident comprehension, demonstrating a deeper degree of intuitive intimacy which is usually the crucial factor for intense revelations in improvisational ambits. The disc is concluded by a trait-d’union recording – “near the end of Just Music & ahead of the group E.M.T.” in A23H’s words – of the quartet formed by Harth, Van Den Plas, her brother Jean Van Den Plas (bass) and Paul Lovens (drums), which in a way symbolizes the transformation of ideals and, especially, the ever-shifting intellectual qualities of a man whose artistic aims were probably too high in relation to a proverbial modesty, as hundreds of imitators found a quick ascent to fame and fortune given their exactly opposite attitude (“let’s steal, then we’ll see”). But time, someone says, is a gentleman, and properly schooled ears are going to do the rest for a complete recognition of “who came first”.


A few additional soldiers join the squad. Harth and friends are flanked in a couple of instances by other free-thinkers, responding to the names of Witold Teplitz (clarinet), Hans Schwindt (alto sax), Thomas Stoewsand (cello) and Andre De Tiege (viola). Ensembles is probably the record in which the ratio between the modernity of the overall sound and the old age of the tapes is in every respect astonishing. A set like the one recorded on September 13, 1968 at the Liederhalle, Mozartsaal in Stuttgart could easily have been composed (on the spot, naturally!) and released today without almost anyone noticing that 1) the players are out-and-out teenagers and 2) the music comes from the post-Palaeozoic era of collective perspicuity, Harth allegedly unaware of entities such as AMM or SME which were evidently navigating contiguous seas. What we need to stress yet again is the impressive up-building of the interplay, which often start from veritable compositional illuminations in turn giving life to earnestness-driven hypotheses for a new contrapuntal design, without the necessity of recurring to tricks or, even worse, reducing the whole to unwarranted noise. In reality, what immediately strikes the ears is the non-difficult digestibility of this material: despite the lack of a commonly intended “theme” or some “melody” to be caught from, and the fact that nonconformity can be detected nearly everywhere, that classic sense of fulfilment deriving from the fine-tuning of dissonance resolving in catharsis permeates the air every time we stop and concentrate a tad more on the wholesome allure of these sounds. The conclusive two parts of “Radio Live Concert In Prague” might be considered among of the most evocative moments this reviewer has experienced in hundreds of hours of A23H-typified expressions, an exquisite meshing of controlled apprehension and cultivated aggrandisement of minuscule mechanisms, sustaining the weight of a prolonged duration to reveal a world of correspondences and interrelationships one would gladly like to acknowledge as “ideal”. An inspiring ending for this marvellous triptych, chock full of secluded beauties finally revealed to worthy audiences. If many people had conveniently “forgotten” to attribute the deserved place in the history of contemporary improvisation to Alfred Harth’s conceptions and ideas, now blind shades and earplugs must be thrown away once and for all. This music should be studied.

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