CD Review: Bruno Heinen Sextet – Karlheinz Stockhausen Tierkreis

Bruno Heinen Sextet- Karlheinz Stockhausen Tierkreis
(Babel BDV13119. CD Review by Matthew Wright)

Pianist Bruno Heinen has quietly been building a reputation as one of the subtlest and most original voices on the contemporary scene for several years now. His 2012 début album ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ (variations on the nursery rhyme) first suggested an interest in unusual source material, even by jazz standards; this is now confirmed by his recent second release.

‘Tierkreis’, Heinen’s own adaptation for jazz sextet of German experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1974 piece of the same name for 12 music boxes, has, like ‘Twinkle Twinkle’, a tinkly timbre and celestial theme, but in all other respects its origins could hardly be more different.

Stockhausen died in 2007 as one of the most distinguished and influential members of the twentieth-century musical avant-garde. He has a forbidding reputation for rigour and adherence to pre-planned structure. It doesn’t, though, make it harsh or tuneless; much of his music sounds richly textured and harmonic, but the variable elements of it – pitch, intensity, duration, etc – have been serialised, or broken down into logical units.

Renowned for his development of electronic music, Stockhausen’s use of music boxes – with a similar man-made control, but ironically quaint sound, unlike the Doctor Who-ish quality of some 1970s electronic music – is typical of his originality of approach. And of Heinen’s, too.

With 12 music boxes, 12 signs of the Zodiac, and 12 notes in the chromatic scale, there’s plenty of scope for theoretical sleight of hand, though both the original version and Heinen’s sound fresh and unforced. Stockhausen’s piece is most often performed with solo piano, but his instructions allow for a wide range of instrumental accompaniment, and the character of the tracks varies widely.

Heinen has a distinguished band, containing some of the most promising players of his generation. With the music boxes and James Allsopp’s savoury bass clarinet added to a standard quartet line-up, he has a potently expressive assembly to deploy. Where there’s no music box, you’d be forgiven for overlooking Stockhausen altogether, and assuming it was a mainstream – though very accomplished – Shorteresque post-bop set-up.

Critics have not all enjoyed the sound of the music boxes, but they give the tonal palette an engagingly zodiacal quality. Combined with piano, in Aries, the sound is a little bloodless, but subtly other-worldly, the weightier piano sound guiding the fairy-light music box like an anxious parent.

Heinen’s a generous band-leader, and solos are pretty evenly shared by all members of the sextet, which results in both versatility and expertise. Taurus adds some almost-funky beef straight away, with Heinen’s vigorous piano driving a powerful dance around Jon Scott’s drums; Gemini relaxes around Tom Challenger’s perfectly-weighted, West-Coast-flavoured tenor sax phrasing, supported by Andrea Di Biase’s fat bass sound and, again, by Heinen’s piano, which stars and supports with expert delicacy throughout.

Cancer showcases Fulvio Sigurtà’s clean, muscular trumpet; he’s also the star on Leo, narrowly the stand-out track for me, which opens with a deliciously dissonant trumpet fanfare that manages to evoke Miles and the Middle Ages simultaneously, leading into one of Challenger’s most supple, writhing solos, then more polyglot trumpet, all laid over some very agile rhythm support.

This is a very accomplished release of contemporary jazz with an unusually broad and interesting stylistic range. The quality of the playing is exceptionally high. While Heinen’s choice of inspiration is compelling, the theoretical paraphernalia of Stockhausen’s serialism is easy to ignore among the musical vibes that feel more American than German.

And I wonder if Heinen has done himself any marketing favours retaining the original Stockhausen title. There are many possible variations on Zodiac; while, despite the undoubted range of Heinen’s influence, Sun Ra probably doesn’t feature much, Ra’s titles, like The Nubians of Plutonia, have an indisputable zing.

The bigger question for Heinen, though, on his extraordinary journey of inspiration from the nursery to the stars: where on earth, or beyond it, can he go next?

Categories: miscellaneous

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