Clifford Allen on Blue for a Moment

The New York City Jazz Record, April 2018

Berlin-based percussionist, accordionist, vocalist, painter and poet Sven-Åke Johansson is an artist who defies categorization, even as much as European free music and “Berliner Improvisation” are handy aesthetic generalities that allow critics and connoisseurs to think that they know what they are getting themselves into. Johansson was born in 1943 in Sweden and decamped to Germany in the late ‘60s, gaining notoriety as a drummer with the groups of trumpeter Manfred Schoof and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. His approach was controlled and resonant yet marked by dynamic impulsions, which is why he was a logical choice for Brötzmann’s trio their first proper recording, with bassist Peter Kowald, was issued privately in 1967 and reissued as For Adolphe Sax on FMP. Living and working in Berlin from 1968, Johansson directed improvising orchestras and joined increasingly madcap small formations, as well as waxing the fascinating solo LP Schlingerland/Dynamische Schwingungen.

The latter was released on his SÅJ imprint, later brought under the FMP umbrella as a home for (mostly) non-Germanic releases. In the ensuing decades Johansson has made field recordings, explored the world of torch songs (in a suitably Bertolt Brechtian fashion) and engaged seriously the tonal and rhythmic imprint of West Coast jazz. But as committed as that arc has been, Johansson can place his tongue firmly in cheek: in 2009 he assembled an orchestra of 12 farm tractors, their guttural pitches and engine timing commingling and falling out of phase like a ramshackle ensemble.

Blue for a Moment is a seven-album boxed set (two of the enclosed albums are double LPs) that acts as a soundtrack, of sorts, for the Antoine Prum documentary of the same name, which premiered in 2017 (Prum has also directed superb films on British free improvisation and the late drummer Sunny Murray). Some of the performances were captured with the intent of being used in the film, but naturally they stand on their own as complete recordings; in addition to six albums of new music, one archival performance from 1978 of the duo with pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach is also included. The whole thing is a handsome package, housed in a heavy linen-bound box with a booklet containing notes by Thomas Millroth and Karl Bruckmaier, as well as a fancy fold-out shot of the 12 farm tractors being lined up for performance. The only bugaboo—and this happens often with heavy vinyl housed in similarly heavy, pretty-looking inner sleeves—is that the LPs get a bit scuffed and that can be a challenge with quiet, sparse playing of which Berliner improvisers are fond. Note to labels: include poly inners as well!

On to the music, of which there is much and resoundingly diverse: far from merely ‘lowercase’, the stasis and cool ruggedness that marks this Berlin school is often marked here by a steadfast motion, something to be interrupted by flits, electroacoustic glitches, erasure and palimpsests. While trumpeter Liz Allbee and guitarist Annette Krebs fizz and ululate late in the story of Frost, Johansson puts on an incisive softshoe, his brushy motion linking through parallel action the furrowed distance of the trumpeter and guitarist’s free play. Lind is a beautiful document of Johansson solo; recorded in 2010, the set presents 15 short unaccompanied works for fingers, mallets and feet, metallic warp and woof, directed voice-like growls and minuscule rattle, all carried with an earthy beat and warm, human touch. Compare this with the vocals and piano of Hudson Songs, warbling and with a gravelly, tart dissonance, poems and instructions delivered with pointillism and clustered harps falling somewhere between deadpan and wryly absurd (think Art & Language conceptual songster Mayo Thompson).

While most of these discs are small groups – trios with percussionist Burkhard Beins and harpist Rhodri Davies, or trumpeter Axel Dörner and piano string manipulator Andrea Neumann, for example – Johansson does present one orchestra. Das

Marschorchester is just what it says, a two-LP set of marches played by the cream of the European avant garde, elevating banality to spirited parkmusik with soli that sound as if they’ve been superimposed. Even without film, the sound and texts of Blue for a Moment present a vivid, rousing portrait of one of creative music’s most compelling artisans.