Many years ago, New Yorker jazz writer Whitney Balliett wrote that jazz was “the sound of surprise,” but in much of today’s mainstream this phrase has become a bit moldy, as tradition and homage have taken the place of making it new. Yet improvised music continues to thrive in infinite variety, particularly in Europe, which is home to many different stylistic centers, each with its own emphasis but also full of cross-fertilization and cooperation. On November 24, Kerrytown Concert House presents an evening of such music by two very different players whose paths have crossed over the years, Dutch saxophonist and clarinetist Tobias Delius and German pianist Georg Graewe.
Delius has a complex history: born in England, raised in Germany and Mexico, he is one of the main players on the multifaceted Amsterdam scene, often playing with the Instant Composers Pool (ICP) orchestra, as a sideman in various groups, and as leader of his own trio and quartet. Although he likes to explore the outer reaches of modernity, he is also a serious student of the history of the tenor saxophone, as much enamored of the sophisticated swing harmonies of Coleman Hawkins or the down-home funk of Gene Ammons as of the extroverted avant screams of Albert Ayler or Frank Wright. He loves to explore the seemingly infinite tonal potential of the tenor saxophone, from subtone low notes to altissimo cries, sometimes loud, sometimes very soft. But no matter how abstract his compositions and improvisations become, underneath it all lurks a warm-hearted romanticism and a love of melody. And his idiosyncratic clarinet playing can take you all the way back to the days of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, albeit skewed by a surrealist filter.
Graewe is an eclectic, form-shifting musician, with roots in both modern classical and rock music, who performs in a bewildering range of combinations, from solo to large orchestral contexts. He has led very different groups, some dedicated to interpreting his compositions, others exploring total improvisation, including a quintet that includes Delius. One of his finest long-lasting trios includes percussionist Gerry Hemingway and cellist Ernst Reijseger, who is Delius’s colleague in the ICP. Their splendid 1999 CD Counterfactuals was recorded during a concert in Kerrytown. Graewe is a technically accomplished pianist who can be strict, precise, and steely in his expression, but also shares with Delius a quirky sense of humor that can enliven his playing when least expected.
Delius and Graewe share a love of exploration that seeks to find new means of expression in ways that reformulate the past without crass homage. They have played Ann Arbor in various groupings but never in the challenging duo setting.