Torsten Papenheim: Some of the Things We Could Be

From the always-adventurous Schraum label comes Some of the Things We Could Be—a not-so-subtle riff on the standard “All the Things You Are,” of course—by Berlin-based Torsten Papenheim (b. 1980). The composer also plays on the album, alongside a dozen others, including some whose names may be familiar to avant-garde and free jazz aficionados (e.g., Peter Brötzmann bassist Clayton Thomas, Anthony and the Johnsons' woodwinds player Christian Biegai). The musicians were invited separately or in small ensembles to the studio, living room, and even a stairwell to record the material, and, with recording taking place over eight months, had no idea what the pieces would sound like in the end.

It's an unusual album in other ways too. For starters, Papenheim and company squeeze twelve wide-ranging compositions into forty-four minutes, with most of the pieces short and only the final one stretching out to nine minutes. The instrumental configurations are arresting too as solo musicians, duos, and groups of varying sizes (the largest seven) tackle pieces arranged for varying mixtures of clarinet, bass clarinet, trombone, trumpet, accordion, banjo, alto sax, guitar, tape, piano, bass, and drums. The music isn't jazz either but rather through-composed experimental pieces—accompanying info characterizes them, not inaccurately, as “avant-garde folk music and noise jazz collages”—that have more in common with contemporary classical composition than jazz (Muhal Richard Abrams' writing comes to mind as somewhat of a comparative example).

Following a guitar-based overture of little consequence (“introducing selected characters & tones”), the album gets down to business with “Harry S. Truman,” a laconic set-piece of nomadic and see-sawing piano lines, growling trombones, and loose, jazz-styled drumming. More experimental by nature is “bruxelles pianno lessons,” a solo Papenheim setting for piano, guitar, and tape which juxtaposes a field recording of a congested urban station and treated piano and guitar sounds. Other pieces of note include: “special teeth profiles shifting,” a bluesy jazz setting for alto sax, bass clarinet, bass, and drums that comes the closest to being “in the tradition”; “Mitscherlichs Zoo,” whose banjo, muted trumpet, and electric guitar skronk conjure the mystery of late-night intrigue at a Ukraine bar; and the closing “All the songs you sing,” a trombone- and tape-generated harmonic drone that's capped by a solo piano spotlight. A portentous dirge (“Mülheim An Der Ruhr”) and interlude featuring multi-layered alto saxes (“nocturne drei”) also appear. On this distinctive album, each piece takes a new left turn and the surprises keep coming until album's end.

August 2009