Strings never sounded like this before. Cologne jazz musician Jürgen Friedrich brings them to dancing. Or even better—they ride on silken waves of sound. The CD begins with the delicately moving, organically flowing sounds of a string ensemble—tones that spill out into a strong-streaming, clear river. Other instruments merge into the flow: alto saxophone, piano, bass, and drums. The sounds are trans- formed into a special sort of magic in which the listener is caught up in a maelstrom of unanticipated beauty. This is music for a twenty two-piece string orchestra and four renowned jazz soloists. And something else deserves attention: Jürgen Friedrich, who is an outstanding jazz pianist, has no role as a soloist—rather as composer, musical director, and conductor. Four soloists are embedded in concertmistress Gerdur Gunnarsdottir's specially selected Sequenza String Orchestra: saxophonist Hayden Chisholm, Pianist Achim Kaufmann, bassist John Hébert and drummer John Hollenbeck. This fascinating, iridescent work is called Monosuite.
Jürgen Friedrich was born in 1970 in the town of Braun- schweig, Germany. He is a musician who can be counted on for the unexpected sound, for music of the highest qua- lity. In his previous Pirouet CD from 2009, Pollock, Friedrich along with world-class bassist John Hébert and drummer Tony Moreno played off the impressions garnered from American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock's 'drip paintings'. The album won praise from both the German and the international press: ...a sensual, complex experience..." was celebrated, one in which ...tones drip, colors mix and meld...", and the music flows. It was certified as ...the art of painting in sound using the most miraculous colors." One critic raved about the ...coherent textures, applied through the last tone...", another stated categorically, You absolutely want to hear more." One might suppose that such comments were about Mono- suite—but they all refer to Pollock. Not only Jürgen Friedrich has attracted attention as the essential part of a trio; he has also caught the jazz world's attention as composer for both small and large ensembles. In 1997 he was the first European to win the USA's prestigious Gil Evans Award for Jazz Composition. More followed, including twice wining the Julius Hemphill Composition Award given by the Jazz Composer's Alliance, an organization that was grounded in the USA in 1985. Friedrich is also in charge of master studies in composition and arrangement at the Mannheim University of Music and the Performing Arts. Since 2006 he has taught in Mannheim as a professor.
Jürgen Friedrich is an outstanding pianist as well as the creator of unusual musical worlds. Thus this piece, which was supported by the North Rhine-Westphalia Art Foundation and the music initiative of the German Cultural Foundation, was a logical development of the artist's. Friedrich commented concerning the genesis of the piece; It all started with waves. I went from flowing water out into a wave, layering the strings one on top of the other. After this I just couldn't stop; I conceptualized nine sections, built soundscapes and textures, sought out tonal material and meters, tried out new concepts, until I was finished. I started out with only a single idea and wanted the resultant material to always illuminate from a single beam—unadorned, single- color, mono."
So much for what the composer has to say about his compositions. And about the title Monosuite; the words un- adorned, single-color, mono are purposeful exaggera- tions—the suite is not as unadorned and monochromatic as one might suppose from the description. The piece is approximately 50 minutes in length, and it evolves through a lot of nuances as it decides on a basic color. And there is complexity in its unadorned simplicity. Friedrich has limited the material, but in the process, his work is painstakingly subtle as he places diverse tonal layers one on top of the other. Thus Monosuite is a sort of musical wolf in sheep's clothing; as high art on a multiplicity of levels, it purpose- fully comes across as basic and unpretentious.
The resulting sounds are remarkably accessible. The suite has a certain something that heads the listeners' way on the first hearing, enfolding them in a sense of warmth— there is a thrilling ambience of beautiful" sounds, also in a completely naïve sense. Thus Friedrich is able to sidestep something that has made combining strings and jazz soloists in sophisticated jazz compositions hard to stomach: the all-too-high aspirations of so many of the works of the Third Stream" movement, which was launched at the end of the 1950's. The movement attempted to combine jazz and modern classical music, to form a new, third stream" of music. Jürgen Friedrich, however, imposes no programmatic ambition as a central focal point. Rather, there is quite simply a passion—as indicated by his exclamation, after this I just couldn't stop". And this passion is not only palpable—it is quickly conveyed to the listener.
Jürgen Friedrich has named a wide variety of artists as having influenced the suite. Painter Mark Rothko stands in the first row of influences with his color field paintings" in which large-format canvases a recovered with fascinating blocks of one or more contrasting, yet complementary colors seemingly radiating against one another. With Rothko, the respective colors were the themes of the paintings. And this is also the case in Monosuite": a particular base- color or base-voice is the theme of the whole suite. Or, as Jürgen Friedrich puts it, as plain and simple as the individual colors might seem, in their detail, they are actually complex: layers, polyphonic textures, superimpositions, interferences."
When Friedrich speaks of important influences on the suite, he also highlights several musicians. There is the American composer John Adams; in his compositions, Adams has refined and further developed the tonalities within the re- petitive structure of minimal music. Then there is jazz saxophonist Steve Coleman, who in the 1980's set new criteria for improvisation with his M-Base" collective, for example, by using non-Western rhythmic and melodic concepts. In addition, the name of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) surfaces, a composer and organist who carried out scrupulously precise studies of birdsong. These studies had a major influence on his compositions, their consequent tonalities, and their universal association with color. And finally, Friedrich mentions the Aka Pygmies from Central Africa, an indigenous people who sing an exciting music containing extremely intricate rhythmic motifs—music that the contemporary classical composer GyörgyLigeti termed higher mathematics". Transmitting the traditions over thousands of years of folk memory, the Aka have uniquely added to the simple and the complex.
But that's not all! There is another important influence—and it is out of the realm of the spectacular. Here the name Laird Hamilton pops up. The 48-year-old American has surfed on waves that were over 72 feet (22 meters) high and rolled in at a speed of up to 50 miles per hour (80 KPH). At any rate, such extremes don't occur in the Monosuite". Rather, the similarity between Friedrich and Laird Hamilton has to do with impressions; Hamilton makes the difficult look easy, and Friedrich's music sounds simple, but in the end it is anything but.
In nine movements, displaying names like Waves, Break Loops and Ritual, Friedrich has provided his soloists and string orchestra with many areas in which to display their wares. It is exciting to listen to what the musicians are able to develop and express. The soloists and the orchestra are on an equal footing—that is, the strings don't just function as a cushion" or support for the soloists; rather, they have their own special worth when it comes to tonal coloring as they meet in dialogue with the soloists. The string players come from various countries: 22 musicians eleven violins, five violas, four cellos, and two bass. For Friedrich, it was important that the string orchestra was composed of musicians that had, as he termed it, a passion" for such a project. It was for this reason that he left the choice of players for the ensemble in the hands of violinist and concert- mistress Gerdur Gunnarsdottir. Gunnarsdottir has had a lot of experience with both New Music and Jazz, as she has worked with the likes of clarinetist Claudio Puntin. Thus, the dialogue between strings and jazz soloists is lively, elastic, and distinctly organic.
Friedrich calls these jazz musicians his dream soloists". The New Zealander saxophonist Hayden Chisholm currently calls both Cologne and Barcelona home. He is the master of a highly flexible tone that at times flirts with microtonal intervals, and he has an almost casual virtuoso playing style. Pianist Achim Kaufmann is originally from Aachen, Germany, and now lives in Berlin. Like Friedrich, he is a virtuoso instrumentalist who plays the most complex structures with remarkable ease. He is also renowned as a com- poser. Louisianian John Hébert has chosen New York as his current home. His virtuoso bass play is known for its strong, deep, moving tones. Besides being the playing partner of Jürgen Friedrich's, he has worked with a wide array of established musicians. Among them are John Abercrombie, Paul Motian, and Greg Osby. Drummer John Hollenbeck calls both Berlin and New York home. As drummer, big band leader, and composer, he is another master of combining high art with accessible music.
There is an amazingly organic intertwining of the musical languages between these master musicians and the Sequenza String Orchestra. The string passages and the solo parts never stand apart; rather, they arise from and dissolve into one another—much as Mark Rothko's blocks of color. And thus, the strings and the soloists continually respond to each other—with motifs and voices, with nuanced colors. Some of the suite's movements are short, barely two minutes long. But then there are sections that are over nine, even over twelve minutes long—at the high- point of the sound wave, so to speak. It's thrilling to hear how in the longer sections the soloists execute their artistic ride on the crest of the musical wave—this is jazz improvi- sation as the art of discipline and inspiration. In the way that Jürgen understands it, mono" can be extraordinarily sophisticated (subtle). It is a passionate desire to continually assimilate the tonal nuances of these Rothkoesque blocks of color. I just couldn't stop;" that's what the com- poser says about Monosuite, and this could also apply to a lot of the listeners who play this CD. Go ahead—take a ride on these waves! They will carry you a long way.
Jürgen Friedrich on Monosuite
The Monosuite has nine sections and is about an hour long. I first developed the rough concept of the sections, and then later worked out the details. I already knew what I wanted in terms of dramaturgy and contrast, which influenced the construction of the individual sections. And this to a such a degree that there was no need to do much within the sections. On the contrary, I have chosen only one theme for each section, found very specific musical material—and then illuminated it from only one side (such as conditions, color fields, columns)—hence, mono.
Waves is played only by the string orchestra. It is inspired by the flow of water in waves, varying in speed and direction. Breaks rips open for the first soloist. Hayden plays a cadence and accompanies himself with a sruti box. In Fiddlesticks, John has a drum dialog with the orchestra, which has a folk- loric sound to it. Blossom is certainly influenced by contemporary composition. For me, it feels as if you are losing the floor beneath your feet. It quickly goes from eerie to shrill, a springboard for all the soloists to enter into a collective improvisation, like an explosion in slow motion.
Low Tide is dedicated to all places and all situations that appear to have passed away, but then make something of a rebirth. Here the violins join in again with flageolet-like sounds. A flowing transition leads to Loops, where minimal- istic patterns played over a tricky groove intertwine and overlay themselves, until the strings soar into a collective theme interspersed with saxophone and piano solos. Ritual is initiated by a bass cadence from John. The strings play pizzicato here, inspired by the song and dance of the Aka Pygmies. Chacaglia is accompanied by a drum cadence that sounds as if there are several drummers playing at the same time. The title is a word play on Chaconne and Passacaglia; a short theme is almost always present. Achim plays a piano solo over the whole thing, and segues with a cadence into the last section. Weave starts off with a single pulsating tone that wanders through the orchestra, can be interpreted this or that way metrically—interferences—then it rocks, the solo- ists come in once again, a lot of repetition, and a virtuoso violin phrase leads to the dynamic climax, a steep crash, and a short fade-out.