CD Review: Nils Wogram Septet, ‘Complete Soul’
(nWog Records 004. CD Review by Alison Bentley)
‘I never liked the competition between European and American jazz,’ German trombonist and composer Nils Wogram once told Downbeat Magazine. Instead, he brings them together. He’s partly inspired by the textures of Miles’ Birth of the Cool, but unlike Gil Evans’ arrangements, the Septet has no chordal instrument and no bass. The writing has a Mingus-like rambunctiousness combined with NDR precision. (Several Septet members work with this renowned German big band.) This recording fuses jazz with Balkan and Indian music, in dizzyingly eclectic compositions played and improvised by elite German musicians. The sheer exuberance, and anarchic array of sounds drawn from free jazz, is focused by the incredible discipline of the ensemble playing.
In Complete Soul the brass and woodwind interweave in boppish lines. The baritone takes the bass role, and the free-ish drums roll with big band energy (the remarkable John Schröder). Wogram’s solo has a warm tone over gentle backing lines, then gruff motifs break out of the structure. Motivation begins with a hard bop theme, first unison, then overlapping like a canon, polyphonic and cool. Tilman Ehrhorn’s squally tenor bursts out over the wild Elvin Jones-like drums. There’s a lot of humour in everyone’s playing: Wogram’s growls recall Ray Anderson, or mentor Steve Turre, with his playful, gleeful range of sounds. He duets with Ehrhorn at the start of Zuerihorn – the gravelly multiphonics make the two instruments almost indistinguishable. Staggered long ensemble notes are held like hypnotic guitar chords. It’s as if Ellington is about to unravel into free jazz: wah wah solos with a rasping edge, chattering sounds behind Claudio Puntin’s ethereally pure clarinet sound.
Weakness is Your Friend is perhaps the most beautiful piece: a delicate, watery mood, as the silky, cool alto and clarinet tones swim among the slow chords. The ensemble’s timbre veers from Gil Evans to a Ligeti wind ensemble, or even the mischievous writing of Mingus sideman Jack Walrath.
Two pieces are based on South Indian ragas, summoning German trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff’s 60s Eastern experiments. Varunaprya is minor and meditative: instead of a harmonium drone, two instruments play the same note and slowly move apart; they’re revealed as clarinet (Puntin) and bass clarinet (Steffen Schorn), but the distinctions between instrument tones are often delightfully blurred throughout the recording. The two flit around each other like birds. There’s an otherworldly feeling as the instruments play unison melodies over an insistent low horn drone and ritualistic percussion (Schröder).
In contrast, Karnakangi is quirky, using notes from the raga in dramatic call and response between low horns and high squealing. Like John McLaughlin, Wogram finds inspiration in percussive Indian vocal rhythms, and you can hear the influence here. Matthias Schriefl’s trumpet solo draws on free jazz, and a Dave Douglas-like tone in its expressive squawks. Steffen Schorn’s bari duet with drums is grungy, twangy, buzzy, while Frank Speer’s alto runs helter-skelter, Steve Coleman-style, into ear-opening intervals. Ehrhorn’s gritty tenor solo crumbles into a Snarky Puppy-ish driving punk theme.
Song For Ahmed and External Wind have a strong Eastern European influence. Wogram plays melodica like a Balkan accordion on the first, with fluttering 7/8 chords. The horns expand the harmonica chords with high energy, like a Bulgarian Ruchenitsa dance. Over a dark lolloping theme come high countermelodies, and a wild gypsy clarinet solo from Puntin (who also plays in a Balkan group). External Wind ends the album with a 9/8 tumbling theme, Schröder’s huge funky sound propelling everything forward in a carefully-choreographed but Bacchanalian dance.
Wogram is incredibly productive, playing and recording with many different ensembles; he even set up his own recording label as his previous one thought he was doing too much. But who else has such a creative blend of discipline and wild improvisation; powerful technique and lightness of touch? Wogram wrote this music for these musicians to show them at their very best, and it does.
Words just can’t do it justice.