Anyone coming to the Vortex to hear Bruno Heinen and his sextet play the kind of deftly lyrical chamber jazz featured on his recent, acclaimed album Twinkle Twinkle, might have been taken aback when the pianist announced that they would play just one piece – an interpretation of a composition by the German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Tierkreis (Zodiac) comprises twelve melodies, one for each sign of the zodiac. It was originally written for a theatrical production, to be played by an ensemble of twelve music boxes. Stockhausen subsequently reworked Tierkreis for vocal, chamber and orchestral ensembles, but as far as he knows, Heinen told us, his is the first interpretation for jazz musicians.
Heinen’s sextet comprised James Allsopp, bass clarinet; Jack Davies, trumpet; Tom Challenger, tenor sax; Andrea Di Biase, bass; and Jon Scott, drums; with both Scott and Heinen also in charge of original Stockhausen music boxes.
The group had four of these precious instruments to hand, but I could only discern two in practice, and a technical problem (a satisfactory sound level couldn’t be achieved) meant that once the musicians gathered any head of steam the boxes were practically inaudible.
Stockhausen put few constraints on the interpretation of the Tierkreis melodies, stipulating only that each one must be played three times, allowing variations or improvisations, and that any performance should start and end with the melody relating to the current starsign, in this case “Virgo”. Fortunately this meant that the music box was clearly audible at the start of the concert, with only consonant piano and Scott’s feathering of the trumpet for competition.
Scott also accompanied the music box on “Libra”, initially accentuating its mechanical, intervallic hesitancy, but soon growing more expansive in anticipation of the almost funky swagger of the full ensemble interpretation of “Scorpio”, studded with punchy unison horn riffs.
Di Biase’s solo “Sagitarius” combined the en point grace and precision of a chamber music interpretation with the sensuality of jazz, and the trio of bass clarinet, trumpet and tenor sax combined with the music box to give “Capricorn” a likewise pastoral feel.
A piano trio setting of “Aquarius” had Heinen playing an almost exultant extended solo, and after an interval he meshed beautifully with a music box again on the mechanical pirouettes of “Aires”.
The ensemble variations throughout the second set favoured a more tightly integrated group, with “Taurus” a jauntily animated piano trio leading into “Gemini”, a mid-paced ballad feature for Challenger’s tenor sax, here sounding as warm and breathy as Dexter Gordon. The addition of Davies’ trumpet and more solo space for Scott’s drumming made of “Cancer” a bright snappy kicker, and Allsopp’s bass clarinet gave “Leo” an air of jaunty, Dolphy-esque abstraction.
The return to Virgo had Heinen time accompanied by the full sextet, all tangibly relaxing into the silence to come. Scott played a bead rattle, while a delicate blend of brass and reeds allowed the fragile melody of the music box to come to the fore as it slowed just perceptibly, and finally clicked softly out.
The album is due in March, on the Babel Label (I subsequently reviewed it here).
Babel Label roundup, part 1: New albums from Ingrid Laubrock and Catatumbo, Mark Hanslip + Javier Carmona, Dialogues Trio with Julian Siegel, and Oltremare Quartet
Bruno Heinen Sextet – Karlheinz Stockhausen Tierkreis + Dice Factory – Dice Factory.