Jiří STIVÍN: “Zvěrokruh” ******

Recorded 1976



The decade of 1970s was replete with various fusion styles.  Jazz was illegally married with rock.  Rock flirted with symphonies and suites.  And analog electronics pervaded all styles of music.  Much of the surge in creativity actually reflected the ferment of the 1960s, and by 1974 the thrill was gone.


But there are exceptions.  Prague flutist Jiří Stivín made rare inroads into syncretic forms virtually untested elsewhere.  His cogent approach to classical, experimental and free jazz music facilitated his exposure to London’s improvised scene, including Scratch Orchestra and Cornelius Cardew. 


In an era when many Czech and Slovak jazz musicians faced significant obstruction by the Communist regime, Stivín’s cross-border activity may be surprising, but the results were nonetheless spectacular.  His Jazz Q quartet recorded a trailblazing session with Radim Hladik’s Blue Effect.  Later collaboration with guitarist Rudolf Dašek also gained notoriety on the continent.


By mid-1970s, Stivín achieved a remarkable level of synthesis between electric jazz and baroque music.  He used his versatility to create a poetic idiom of the highest standard.  For many, such shameful heterodoxy would amount to little more than an artistic cul de sac.  Yet Stivín’s luxurious arrangements are not only cosmopolitan and multifarious, but often entirely counterintuitive.  It is therefore not surprising that in later years Stivín specialized in Vivaldi’s and Telemann’s repertoire. 




The first four sections are iconophonic illustrations of the four elements.  Beginning with “Fire”, after a brief anaphora from the chorus (Kühnův Smíšený Sbor), the saxophone flirts with a swift upward run.  The mixed gender chorus part is enunciatory and lofty.  Against this non-formulaic, befuddling introduction, Slovakian pianist Gabriel Jonàš’s entry is comfortably jazzy – recurrent bass figure serving right hand improvisation.  Stivín occupies himself with cymbals and delivers elegant, discrete drumwork.  Then he picks up his alto sax, turning the concept into a virtual trio of modal, very European (Namysłowski?) character.  The tonal organization of the chorus owes a lot to George Russell’s achievements, with a strong emphasis on modern chromatic harmonies placed in a quasi-medieval context.  The tenors keep repeating the original phrase, while the sopranos enjoy more freedom.  A gong overtone and sopranos stringendo close this first eavesdrop into Stivín’s vision.



Water – “acqua, fluves, fluvia”, or so echoes the sprightly dialogue between male and female members of the Kühn chorus.  Gabriel Jonàš’s piano emerges from this celebratory atmosphere in a more Jarrettian mode (in particular his pedal work).  The chorus vanishes slowly, leaving the pianist to twirl solo, but soon resuming its haunting, watery line.  The multifunctionality of the pianistic contribution is remarkable.  Jonàš provides a repetitive figure for Stivín’s flute, and then, brighter and blither, his keyboard prances around, occasionally inviting the chorus to return with its acquatic message.  The flute’s solo is smooth, classical, well-rounded and never overly florid.  Whenever the chorus’s call and response reappears, Jonàš confines himself to courteously hand out a reliable bass line.  Stivín’s circular blowing ends on a high note, not unlike in Corea’s Andalusian themes.



“Air” commences with breathy, melismatic vocal.  Cosmic panpipes (actually a syrinx) and mixed male/female Sprechgesang unfold in a multi-layered, jaunty argument.  The panpipes are used here in a neo-classic, rather than folksy (Andean or Carpathian) mode, but the overall mood is bacchanal, even zestful.  Stivín exploits velvety, mushy melismas to warble and tweet on his piccolo.  The simple two-chord configuration suffices to make the composition swing like a school break see-saw on a windy day.  It imparts a sense of mirth, despite, or rather because of the meticulous scoring for strained voices, guttural and plosive effects, scat, clicks and water bottles.  Some of these effects express relief, others – ecstasy.  The looped syrinx recurs with the regularity of a suburban maneige.  We leave the composer, his piccolo soloing and his gasping on alto flute.



“Earth” deceives.  From a madrigal-like polyphonic carol exuding declamatory pathos there snakes out Stivín’s alto flute.  Unexpectedly, hand drums and a very mechanical sounding drum crop up (one could almost believe it is a rhythm machine, but is this possible in Czechoslovakia barely 4 years after Kingdom Come’s LP “Journey”?).  The piano part is conservatively syncopated, with the accents perfectly positioned for the rushing flute solo.  By now the chorus is long gone – and “Earth” becomes a mere ‘fusion’ trio of flute, piano and fast motion (Stivín is actually quite impressive on the bongos).  An enigmatic piano window shuts all too soon and “Earth” wins hands down as the most mundane of the four elements.  The final choral rentrée does not alter this impression.



The second quadruple set of compositions features a String quartet (Talichovo Kvarteto).  The cellist intones a romantic line, only sparsely actualized by the partners.  Jonàš’s electric piano is a living testimony to the most commonly usurped sound of the decade.  The strings’ phrasing is beguiling, but entirely predictable, allowing Jonàš to fill in all the available space.  Deservedly or not, an avant-garde jazz rock combo set against a neo-classical string quartet will forever bring back the memories of Quoatuor Margand on Yochk’o Seffer’s trilogy ‘Neffesh Music’. 



This is a busier, nervy track staged for a duet between jolly piano and nonchalant piccolo, piqued against a stately (albeit brief) string quartet intro.  Its plucked meter suggests a ragtime substructure, but one with inbuilt classical commentaries by the Talich Quartet.  Stivín’s piccolo frolics with apelike agility, even though it sends us back 60 years in the history of jazz. 



Imagine a deeply melancholic flute, misanthropic electric piano and pastoral strings – bundled together, all this sounds, looks, tastes and smells like a 1970s’ soundtrack.  The key ingredients are all present: the track is downtempo, decorated with an interminable legato and a lonely, mellow melodic line hung loosely above it.  To be fair, there are actually two flute lines multitracked by Stivín, but this is only made apparent when the prolonged complaint forlornly laid out by the romantic strings eventually perishes.  How come Lelouch or Chabrol never made use of such highly lachrymatory commercial potential?



In a stunning aboutface, the Talich Quartet sprouts like Soldier String Quartet in Elliott Sharp’s strident hands.  Realism descends only when Stivín’s reeds and Jonàš’s arpeggiated cembalo begin to coruscate like Pierrot Lunaire’s classic masterpiece.  Undisturbed, the quartet keeps sawing as if obeying marching orders.  This groundbreaking experiment would be entirely satisfactory even without the multilayered saxophone finish.



This longer track crowns the proceedings.  This is also the only occasion to hear simultaneously the chorus and the string quartet.  The ever lyrical violins rise, immediately doubled up by the chorus.  Once again, Stivín exposes his predilection for seeking out unique tone colors – here on marimba juxtaposed with cembalo tremolos.  The chromospheric flute governs the melodic content; the harmony emanates from the acoustic piano.  With tense string backdrop, tenors and sopranos alternate, pronouncing the Latin names of the zodiac.  This is much more effective than the spoken word on Cosmic Sounds’ LP “Zodiac” (1967) and it is doubtful whether Stivín was familiar with that record.  A rather domesticated saxophone returns in a solo, dragging back the piano from obscurity.   The obsessive tremolo on clavicembalo, in and out of auralscape, never tires.  If there is anything remotely ‘jazzy’ on this unclassifiable piece, then it stems from the piano part and will still fall short of purists’ expectations.  The two players swap roles whenever Stivín’s marimba infuses just enough harmonic support for a pianistic solo.  When the watershed moment finally comes, the entire “band” is at the ready – the flutes, the saxophone, vocal snippets, piano, cembalo, marimba and the strings – peaking in ecstasy redolent of Keith Tippett’s large ensembles.  For a moment, Stivín’s saxophone turns torrid, his phrasing gets shorter.  The apotheosis ends when the Andean piccolo flutters away in complete solitude.  Spectacular. 






BLUE EFFECT & JAZZ Q: “Coniunctio” (1970)


Jiří STIVÍN – Rudolf DAŠEK: “Our System Tandem” (1974)

Jiří STIVÍN – Rudolf DAŠEK: “System Tandem” (1975)

SYSTEM TANDEM: “Koncert v Lublani” (1976)

Jiří STIVÍN: “Zvěrokruh” (1976)


Jiri Stivín’s discography is much more extensive.  Note, however, that he does not feature on any of the Jazz Q records that followed the revolutionary “Coniunctio”.  Although “Coniunctio” and “Zvěrokruh” are in a class of their own, the remaining recordings listed above are also of interest for those who have developed a taste for European borderline avant-jazz of the 1970s.  His later sessions with Pierre Favre were reputedly of equally high quality.


Published in: on August 11, 2008 at 9:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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CONTACT TRIO: “Double Face” *****

Recorded 1974-1975



In late 1960s, drummer Michael Jüllich and bassist Alois Kott launched the concept of a trio straddling the “border” erected by the media between the rock and jazz scenes.  Continental Europe had none of the race divisions that were still determinant for the development of separate musical trends on the other side of the Atlantic.  The openly avant-gardish evolution of German rock music in the following years allowed Contact Trio to develop into a tight unit incorporating explorations into jazz improvisation, contemporary composition and ethnic percussion.  Contact Trio really took off when Evert Brettschneider joined on guitar in 1973.  


The band’s parsimonious tapestries were an antidote to over-orchestrated pedantry and calculated, aseptic guitar races that began to dominate derivative jazz-rock by that time.  Rather, the members of Contact Trio opted to nourish a mutual intrigue, but always foiling a full-blown arousal.  Their reed-less style, sometimes compared to Giger-Lenz-Marron or to Electric Circus, remained diagrammatic and introspective.  Despite the unquestionable quality of their music, their records never accrued the type of cult following that did many of their contemporaries. 





The first sound of Contact Trio is that of a marimba, adroitly handled by Michael Jüllich.  It breaks the ice for a fast ostinato courtesy Alois Kott on acoustic bass.  Kott tees up for Evert Brettschneider on acoustic guitar, but the marimba appears to question this.  The full configuration offers an initial response, but both string instruments will now proceed more cautiously.  As the marimba and acoustic bass tiptoe along, an electric guitar introduces shreds of suspense; first intimate and delicate, then sharp and anguished, leaving us on tenterhooks.  The bass indulges in thorny, crumpled vibrato and the guitar leaches improvisations laid out perfectly within the tonal range of the marimba.  Brettschneider scatters some rugged flashes, but never races ahead.  Even though his guitar does occasionally bring to mind Dzyan’s Eddy Marron, Contact Trio’s arrangements are more transparent and permeable.


Double Face

The title track unfolds slowly with strings scraped along the body of the guitar.  Porous, bowed bass adds another pole of wiry attraction.  The strumming of the guitar could be a sign that the atonal intro is over.  Instead, the guitar sets an irregular time signature, still scraping the end of the notes, chucking them into a deep echo.  From that abyss emerges the flute (Jüllich), organically endearing itself to the bow.  The wind instrument seems to be instantly magnetized by the guitar-stressed bars.  Whereupon, the theme ceases…  In an ambiguous moment of self-doubt, the guitar and bowed bass refuse to meet on the scale, even though they seem to be aware of each other’s meter.  Jüllich’s tabla wakes them up, issuing an invitation to multivector explorations.  This improvised trio is hermetic, but legible, scraggly but sprightly.  Instead of a monsoon, the guitar calls on a whiff of Brazilian breeze.  To the ostinato of acoustic bass ostinato and tabla, Brettschneider spreads his wings, cruising above the multi-metric transom with ease.  His selection of pace, loudness and proportion is impeccable.  After a short melodic interlude from the bass, the tabla is left alone.  Most probably frowned upon by subcontinental purists, this parched, solo meditation bolts forward and perfectly sews into the fabric.



Brettschneider struts in, on a mystical electric guitar, with immanent delay and micro-distortion.  This daring, graphic ode is also our first introduction to electric bass and drums.  When the guitarist switches over to Toto Blanke-like fusion runs, the band is literally wrapped in glimmering cymbal ribbons.  Wah-wah bass blabbers something behind as the guitar mesmerizes us with its vitality.  Back to the illuminative march of the opening seconds, the trio crafts a forgotten classic of tri-modal jazz-rock avant-garde.



A very presto entrée reminds us of some of Association P.C.’s memorable moments.  When the guitar loses its way, the exuberantly sparkling cymbals encourage Brettschneider to pick up speed.  Which he does, but fails to schlep along the rest of the band.  Contrary to naïve expectations, this now appears to be a prehensile improvisation for bipolar guitar and cymbal shimmer.  The second movement is played largo with mallets gently laid on the drums.  A neurotic, psyched-out guitar glides over the dreamlike bass steps.  This highly addictive guitar play is rather unusual in the jazz format (if it is jazz at all, a big ‘IF’).  With a slight echo thrown into the mix, the guitar self-observation gains plenty of transcendental freedom.  The third movement of the Sonata is devoted to repeated striking guitar salvos, always abandoned on a higher note.  The cross-chord technique would several years later be adopted by Henry Kaiser during his flagship atonal period.  Here, Alois Kott’s bubbly bass germinates goofily.  A molar drum solo purports to perform a rondo, but none of this is allowed to linger for too long.  Sharp, incisive cuts from the guitar catalyze the Sonata’s ending. 





Several years later, the trio returned with an equally exciting statement.  On their last LP Michael Jüllich was replaced by Peter Eisold.  The group continued to perform for several years without leaving any recorded traces.  All the three albums are recommended for the lovers of continental jazz-rock (?) avant-garde. 


CONTACT TRIO: “Double Face” (1974-1975)

CONTACT TRIO: “New Marks” (1978)

CONTACT TRIO: “Musik” (1980)


One later track can be found on festival LP entitled “Umsonst und Draussen – Papenburg”. 

Published in: on June 25, 2008 at 7:50 pm  Comments (1)  
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