Live review

Bau.Haus.Klang at the Barbican; Bang/Calvert at Kings Place (2019 EFG LJF)

Bau.Haus.Klang (1st set – Michael Wollny, piano; Wolfgang Heisig, programmed piano; Émile Parisien, soprano sax; Leafcutter John, electronics; Max Stadtfeld, bass)
(Barbican Hall, EFG London Jazz Festival, 24 November 2019.)
Battleship Potemkin – Jan Bang & Matt Calvert
(Kings Place, EFG London Jazz Festival, 23 November 2019. Reviews by Richard Lee)

What you see is what you get. As wise saws go, it’s one that hadn’t really made its presence felt to me at gigs until the end of the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival when, having been thoroughly blown away by Marius Neset et al, I reflected that I hadn’t commented on the staging. I should have, as the lighting designer Tony Simpson was given equal billing with the band and my first note was “artful lighting rig piercing mist-filled stage”. All credit to Simpson for accentuating the mood and thrill of the concert with his design, and to the stage crew for not overdoing the mist. I always think it’s what’s missing at Ronnie’s since the smoking ban: a gentle haze through which every musician sounded better… Two concerts on the final weekend of the Festival left me reflecting further on how what we see really is a part of what – and how – we get it.

L-R: Leafcutter John, Michael Wollny, Emile Parisien, Wolfgang Heisig, Max Stadtfeld (Drums). Bauhaus. Klang at the Barbican. Photo © Tim Dickeson

A veritable fog generator sat behind Michael Wollny’s piano and organ, pushing out clouds of the stuff, so much so, it would have been little surprise to see him look up from his feverishly studied attention to the keyboards with half a white mask on. Again, lighting was carefully rigged to pick out each player when necessary, to backlight musicians and mist most dramatically. It felt most apt to underline the visual pleasure of a design movement in this big and showy way, because however incredibly complex and sometimes cerebral was the music, recollecting everything from the experiments with materials that characterised Bauhaus to the Weimar decadence of the Bauhaus Dance Orchestra, it was the performance that counted.

As well as Wollny’s “hope you enjoy” announcing a section based on Alban Berg’s early 12 note-row experiments – which was actually remarkably easy to enjoy – strains of modernists like Eisler & Nancarrow came from the pair of pianos, the second artfully prepared, while Wollny’s incredibly powerful left hand anchoring and breathtaking speed left us standing. But not Émile Parisien whose effortless sax matched Wollny in pace and precision. They also played some gorgeously pensive passages together, recalling those sweetly understated sessions of almost half a century ago by Lol Coxhill and Phil Miller. Parisien is an extraordinary performer: small and wiry, occasionally resting a leg on the foldback speaker, sometimes lifting and twisting them like Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, his yogic dancing as the intensity of his lines increased being a mesmeric focus for us.

Contrast this with Leafcutter John’s measured manipulations over the electronica kit: the spirit of Bauhaus incarnate, he drew sounds from metal, wood, glass and cloth that almost always felt seamlessly (sic) integrated. The umbrella with ping-pong balls was singularly arresting… Yes, I enjoyed watching this gig as much as hearing it. Perhaps next year Wollny and co will be invited back to play against a silent expressionist classic, if not Phantom of the Opera (I’m still quite fond of Roy Budd’s soundtrack) then maybe Fritz Lang’s M?

I’m sad not have been able to stay for the rest of the evening, with works from Dawn of Midi and Daniel Brandt but my weekend was already burgeoning with Saturday’s viewing of Eisenstein’s seminal 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, with a new soundtrack by Jan Bang & Matt Calvert. Co-produced with Opera North & the Norwegian Embassy, the electronics and guitar work certainly brought a fresh energy to the film.

Or was that the other way round? Having only ever seen it on BBC2 decades ago, first with the original Meisel score, then with Shostakovich’s, (though never any of the recent versions, including Michael Nyman or the Pet Shop Boys…) I was struck as never before by the film’s visceral power. Was that the power of the music or merely a bigger screen? As the first film of any note to be “composed” by its director through editing and montage, it’s a gift to composers and, by extension, improvisers and Bang and Calvert rose to the occasion.

This new score wasn’t entirely programmatic, merely trying to evoke each emotion or action though mechanical percussives and echoes of white noise. But those sheets of sound and rhythmic motifs did make me regard the sheer protean beauty of Eisenstein’s intercut imagery of nature and industry with new respect. Sequences such as the maggot-ridden meat accompanied by a skittering theme, and moments of high drama such as the refusal of the shooting squad to fire on their own, employed thunderous bass tones to terrific effect.

There were sounds that inevitably, old rockers like me cannot help but compare with the prog-rock portentousness of ELP or King Crimson, but only to try and convey the size of that sound. The film’s triumphant image of an actual red flag being raised in its monochrome world – a kind of “Do Look Now” moment – had me musing about the presentation and texture of the music. If electronica is a kind of monochrome experience, it certainly benefits from the grand gesture on stage.

Both musicians sat below the screen, in low light throughout. I was pleased to be able to watch Bang attack his controls with the enthusiasm of a drummer, not as a distraction but as a complement to the film. To be honest, because Calvert was set a little too far back from where I was sitting, I couldn’t discern who was responsible for purely electronic or guitar work, but I was aware of Zappa-like strains and, I guess, a pedal array from Calvert of freshness and power, especially in the monstrous massacre on the Odessa Steps.

But was it Jazz? Of course it was, carefully planned but played and explored in the moment. And both events reflected on two major visual landmarks of the last century, resolutely re-presenting them through the sounds and vision of our own. And you had to do both with eyes wide open!

LINK: A video of Bau.Haus.Klang from Berlin earlier this year

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