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A Monument to the Living

Venerable free-jazz label FMP is dead, but it leaves behind a box set chronicling the thriving community it helped nurture.




FMP: Im Rückblick—In Retrospect


For the past decade it's operated intermittently, rarely managing more than half a dozen releases per year and sometimes falling dormant for long stretches, but Free Music Production—better known as FMP—is nonetheless the longest-running active free-jazz label I can name. Or more accurately, it was: the monstrous new 12-CD box set FMP: Im Rückblick—In Retrospect is its final release.

Founded in 1969 as an outgrowth of an annual Berlin festival called the Total Music Meeting (which began the previous year), FMP was always a modest operation, with a tiny staff and little hope of remaining solvent without state arts grants, but it has no equal when it comes to representing the development and aesthetic range of European free jazz. Arising in the mid- to late 60s, primarily in the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany, European free jazz was distinct from its stateside predecessor, and inspired many musicians to revolt against the emulation of American idioms, a practice that had been the norm for decades. They took inspiration from contemporary classical music, especially serialism and atonality, as well as from the Fluxus movement, whose adherents loved absurdity and provocation and brought a playful openness to their notion of what constituted a "performance." In some cases the music's connection to the blues—still the bedrock of most American jazz—was imperceptible or entirely severed.

The first Total Music Meeting was organized by reedist Peter Brötzmann, a key figure in the history of European free jazz, and bassist Jost Gebers, who would soon put down his instrument to start FMP. Brötzmann became the label's most prolific, popular, and loyal artist, and helped shape its visual aesthetic with his paintings, prints, and drawings. Almost every important European free-jazz musician recorded for FMP, and even a list that restricts itself to the label's most prolific contributors is impressive—it includes saxophonists Brötzmann, Evan Parker, and Rüdiger Carl; trumpeters Manfred Schoof, Kenny Wheeler, and Enrico Rava; trombonists Johannes and Connie Bauer, Günter Christmann, and Radu Malfatti; drummers Paul Lovens, Sven-Ake Johansson, and Günter "Baby" Sommer; pianists Alexander von Schlippenbach, Irene Schweizer, and Fred Van Hove; and bassists Peter Kowald, Buschi Niebergall, and Harry Miller. And that's leaving aside the many like-minded Americans who got in on the action.

FMP: Im Rückblick—In Retrospect celebrates the label's longevity with music recorded between 1975 and 2010. The 12 CDs, which can also be ordered individually from FMP, include five discs of previously unreleased material, like a 1994 live set by Brötzmann's quartet Die Like a Dog and a solo Kowald concert from 2000. The other seven discs are all music from the depths of FMP's catalog, none of which has ever been issued on CD. One disc combines two Van Hove solo albums from the 80s; another augments Steve Lacy's classic 1975 solo set Stabs with a couple tracks from the great 1977 quintet recording Follies; a third is a mind-blowing session by the 1975 edition of von Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra, whose lineup included Wheeler, Parker, Lovens, Brötzmann, and Anthony Braxton—it hasn't even come out on LP, except for one track Lovens released in the late 70s on his Po Torch label.

Because FMP meticulously documented the branching evolution of European improvised music over the decades, this box set can do an excellent job encapsulating it. Among its contents there's a shortage of aggressively abstract nonreferential music and of what jazz scholar Kevin Whitehead calls "new Dutch swing," but a clear division nonetheless emerges between muscular all-out blowing and relatively gentle, gestural improvising. The latter can be heard as early as 1977, on a duo recording by guitarist Stephan Wittwer and trombonist Radu Malfatti, and as recently as 2010, on a duo by cellist Tristan Honsinger and guitarist Olaf Rupp.

For most of FMP's history Gebers has been at the helm, though for a few years in the early to mid-70s a collective of musicians—including Brötzmann—shared the job with him. Producing and recording concerts and releasing albums was never profitable for FMP, and Gebers held down a day job as a social worker. In fact he talked so often about throwing in the towel and leaving FMP that the subject comes up in several of the essays and personal reflections in the box set's jam-packed 218-page book—by Chicago reedist Ken Vandermark, American critic Bill Shoemaker, and German critics Bert Noglik and Wolf Kampmann, among others. But someone, typically Brötzmann, usually talked him out of retiring. The book also includes a complete illustrated discography of FMP and its subsidiaries SAJ, Uhlklang, and OWN, plus an alphabetized artist roster and comprehensive listings and lineups for the many festivals and series FMP presented.

At the end of 1999, Gebers stepped down and handed FMP to a longtime acquaintance, Helma Schleif, partner of reedist Wolfgang Fuchs—a decision he came to regret. According to Kampmann's essay, Schleif was supposed to restrict herself to releasing and marketing music through FMP Publishing—an entity distinct from FMP itself, which would cease to exist—and wind down the operation within a few years. The Total Music Meeting, as well as the other concerts and workshops affiliated with FMP, were to be discontinued. In part this was because in 1997 Gebers had persuaded government officials to temporarily exempt FMP from funding cuts by explaining that the label would soon be a shadow of itself, no longer presenting the events on which it spent most of its state money. Schleif not only continued to organize live-music events but allegedly violated her licensing agreement with FMP Publishing, provoking it to terminate its contract with her in 2003. Gebers began a long fight to regain control of the company, finally prevailing in 2006. He resumed releasing quality music, but he was no more eager to keep running a label than he had been when he bowed out years before—and the legal battle had exhausted him further.

FMP has sent me promotional copies of plenty of its releases over the years, but not one has included any press materials. FMP: Im Rückblick—In Retrospect was no exception. I heard through the grapevine, not from a source at the label, that the box was FMP's swan song—so I contacted Gebers to confirm. This time, he says, it really will close up shop. At least it's going out in style.

A Garifuna Emissary Returns to the Studio


Laru Beya

(Sub Pop/Next Ambiance/Stonetree)

Belizean producer Ivan Duran, who runs the Stonetree label, has a special love for paranda and other traditional musics of the Garifuna (sometimes collectively called Garinagu), a Central American people descended from west African slaves who mixed with native Caribs and Arawaks on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent after a shipwreck in the late 17th century. In 1997, when he was preparing for the sessions that led to Paranda: Africa in Central America, he assembled a roster of singers that included several veterans between 57 and 94 years old, Belizean punta star Andy Palacio, and Honduran singer Aurelio Martinez, then 27—by far the youngest musician involved. The liner notes to the disc call Martinez the "future of Paranda," but it took him a while to release his first solo album: Garifuna Soul came out in 2004, with Duran producing again.

Compared to Paranda, it has fuller arrangements, denser and more propulsive percussion, richer vocal harmonies, relatively pop-friendly melodies, and a new albeit understated reggae influence. But it actually doesn't sound all that different—Martinez's songs, with lyrics that both praise Garifuna culture and warn of the risk of its extinction, are still based on acoustic guitar and his creamy, soulful voice, weathered to a rasp around its edges. In 2005, though, he set aside music for politics, becoming the first person of African descent elected to the National Congress of Honduras—where he fought vigorously on behalf of the Garifuna. He returned to music in 2008, after the sudden death of Palacio, who'd had great success with a more traditional Garifuna sound on his 2007 breakthrough album, Watina.

Martinez attended Palacio's funeral and played a few tribute concerts, which helped convince him that he needed to start recording again. He set to work on Laru Beya with Duran, who'd also been Palacio's producer. Before they finished laying down the instrumental tracks, though, Martinez was accepted into a program called the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative, which sent him to Senegal to work with Youssou N'Dour, who'd chosen him as a student. His experiences there reshaped the album significantly—not only does the music connect the busy but seductively sashaying rhythms of paranda to their African roots, the songs also feature vocal cameos from N'Dour, Orchestra Baobab singers Rudy Gomis and Balla Sidibe, and hip-hop crew Sen Kumpe.

The production and arrangements ratchet up the Jamaican vibe further, adding bottom-heavy bass, a bit of electric guitar, and some of the off-the-beat syncopated strumming characteristic of reggae. But there's also plenty of traditional hand percussion, complemented by crisscrossing vocal harmonies and a detailed lattice of interwoven guitar lines—as many as four on some tunes. The Senegalese guests not only add their voices to Martinez's but also play traditional west African instruments like xalam, balafon, sabar, and kora.

The songs are mostly slow to midtempo, with sorrowful melodies so beautiful they create an aura of hope and uplift almost in spite of themselves; some of the lyrics celebrate love or Garifuna culture, and others lament political corruption, infidelity, or the hardships of immigration. Though the music builds on traditional paranda rhythms and forms, it's clearly a modern studio creation, with the occasional vocal filter or other evidence of a producer's touch. A few tunes, like "Ereba," sound slick and generic—they're the kind of "world music" that tries to hybridize too many elements at once and ends up losing whatever might have made it distinctive. But even in those cases, Martinez's enthusiasm, earnestness, and generally winning personality manage to compensate. And the best songs, where Martinez and the music pull in the same direction, have a smart transcontinental depth—the blend of genres is well-proportioned and enlightening.

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