German jazz veteran Günter Baby Sommer reunites with Cold War-era colleagues on a new live CD

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Quarteto Trionfale  (Günter Baby Sommer, Barre Phillips, Manfred Schoof, Gianluigi Trovesi) - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy of the artist
  • Quarteto Trionfale (Günter Baby Sommer, Barre Phillips, Manfred Schoof, Gianluigi Trovesi)

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, adventurous jazz musicians in East Germany struggled to keep up with their comrades on the other side. While some artists in the east got opportunities to play abroad and collaborate with folks from beyond the wall, they often had to contend with serious government meddling. In 1979, for example, fantastic East German drummer Günter Baby Sommer was booked to perform at the Jazzwerkstatt Peitz, a small performance space in the east, with a band that included excellent West German trumpeter Manfred Schoof—a key figure in the advent of free jazz and an early cohort of Peter Brötzmann. According to the liner notes of a new Sommer CD, written by critic and radio host Götz Bühler, the authorities were concerned about the potential blowback of having a player from the other side of the wall in the band, so they demanded that Sommer round out the group with musicians from other countries. Those other musicians were wonderful Italian reedist Gianluigi Trovesi and great American bassist Barre Phillips.

The new Sommer CD in question, Le Piccole Cose (Intuition), is a live performance by that same band—now called Quarteto Trionfale—taped last October in Gütersloh, Germany. (Berlin-based Italian bassist Antonio Borghini replaced Phillips for the show.) The album opens with the spirited Schoof tune "Like Don," whose Ornette Coleman-esque tartness suggests that the "Don" of the title is trumpet genius Don Cherry. Back in the day, these players didn't always gun for the pedal-to-the-metal energy of their West German counterparts, and the ease with which they command the free-bop idiom they've been playing for all these years can make it feel nostalgic—but beyond the breezy lyricism and sharp interplay, there's plenty of lively personality, especially from Sommer, who chants and vocalizes as an extension of his melodic drumming on "Inside Outside Shout."

Sommer's nickname, "Baby," was taken from the great Baby Dodds, Louis Armstrong's original drummer, and to this day he produces a stunningly tuneful sound from his kit that goes well beyond timekeeping. Schoof is in fine form here too, but the biggest surprise is Trovesi, who over the past decade or two has largely turned toward meditative art music—it's wonderful to hear him really blow for a change. The CD concludes with an 11-minute Sommer interview conducted by Bühler—but if like me you don't speak German, it's easy enough to stop after the beautiful final track, "Hymnus." You can check out "Inside Outside Shout" below.

Today's playlist:

Ollie Brice/Tobias Delius/Mark Sanders, Somersaults (Two Rivers)
Ted Hearne/The Crossing, Sound From the Bench (Cantaloupe)
Michael Finnissy, Mississippi Hornpipes: Music for Violin and Piano (Métier)
Bushman's Revenge, Jazz, Fritt Etter Hukommelsen (Rune Grammofon)
Phairin Phonphibun, Lam Klom Thung: Essential Phairin Phonphibun (Em, Japan)

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